Wednesday, November 24, 2010

"I'm Thank You For..." some thoughts about Gratitude and Parenting

Today, as my little group of preschoolers was saying their farewells to each other, we went round the group once more to answer a simple question: "What do you have in your life that you are glad for?"

"Skis", said one. "Lunch" said another, who lives for their turn to be the lunchtime helper and set out lunchboxes at each child's place. And the last answer made my heart proud and melty, even in the 30 degree cold.

"I'm thank you (thankful) for school." she replied.

Excuse me a minute while I bask in the afterglow of that comment!

Earlier today, I read a great post by Gila Brown about keeping holidays sane. One thing that caught my eye was her advice about instilling a sense of gratitude in our own children. Brown points out that our own gratitude, giving our children a "thank you" and a smile when they help or make life easier or more pleasant in general-- this is what our children notice, and what makes a more lasting impression than telling them why they should be grateful.

The "attitude of gratitude" seems very relevant to this season of giving, and it's been a hot topic on the good ol' Mamaworldforum. There appear to be a lot of parents who have some well-intentioned-but-developmentally-unreasonable expectations of their children around being grateful and giving. Add to this the many different feelings around the holidays themselves, and the idea of teaching gratitude can become a hairy soup. One parent pondered teaching her child (who apparently has everything) gratitude through deprivation, by serving only rice and beans at meals, taking away all her toys, the television, computer and superfluous clothing for a while; perhaps this experience would help her child learn some empathy for others and appreciation for what she did have. Many parents lament that their children focus on Christmas as a time of gifts instead of the religious significance within those traditions, and thus another debate over "do you do Santa, and why?" was born, causing one mother to write that she doesn't do Santa because she works hard for those gifts, and wants her children to know they came from her. Another mom wanted to find volunteer opportunities so that her two year old child could learn the value of giving: I suggested making cookies for the neighbors, and letting her child give the plates of cookies over to the friends; knowing there were cookies at home would make this easier for such a young child.

While gratitude is a great quality to see in a person, it seems we might be just a wee bit panicked about it.

What's missing, to me, is a little self-reflection. Did we forget that we had to grow into feeling gratitude, and that even as adults, it is a sometimes very elusive feeling? If we nice, grown, virtuous adults took a realistic look back in time, weren't we all subject to some severe cases of the gimmegimmes? Even if we had a suitcase full of dollies, didn't we want "that one", the one that caught our eye at the toy store or at our friend's house? Or that other Lego system, or game, or gadget? Don't we sometimes speak wistfully in front of our own children about what we want, and don't we ask them to do a lot for us, even if it does fall under the umbrella of "following directions"? In fact, what we often model to our children is that we expect cooperation of them, instead of acknowledging that their cooperation is something they are voluntarily choosing to give.

Isn't this the exact same attitude so many parents are fighting against, that attitude of expectation our kids have? That we will give them what they want, when they want it, right now? How can we want our children to behave better than ourselves, or possess attributes we don't always find in ourselves, if truth be told? I'm not saying this to be harsh, but just as a realistic double-take. I know that I, myself, am not the most grateful person that ever lived. Sometimes I am just a tired, grumpy mom and I know that when I'm getting that back from Kiddo, it may be more to do with me than it is with him. Parents must be in authority in the parent/child relationship, but we can all stand to be more appreciative of our children's efforts, and to express it to them.



And, too, we can circumvent some of this by limiting what they do have in a loving way. We don't have to say yes to everything. Save the blowout birthday parties for special ages and not every year, even if the best friend had the full-on pirate or Thomas or American Girl party. Christmas can be a modest holiday and still loads of fun, if we think wisely about presents instead of buying the popular big ticket item. They might want it today, or tomorrow, but will it be of interest to them say a week or a month from now, when something newer and better comes into their circle of friends? What they do need from us, though, is pleasant time together we consider special, or something that supports their deeper interests. This year, one of my sisters opted to give her newly-nine year old a chance to take pictures of things that interested him and to make a book of it. What a great way to encourage appreciation: she is appreciating--and helping him to continue appreciating--those things that seem worthy of notice to him. This sort of gift shows that not only do we value what our child values, we also feel it's worthy of our time to spend it helping them to make their ideas manifest.



We don't need to give our kids toys and treats to reward behavior or for using the toilet. Children tend to confuse incentives with entitlement, no matter how much we try to differentiate the two;  how much better to enjoy something fun 'just because' than having to connect our being giving with something they did. Some parents worry about their children missing out, or not being popular, and so the child is given all the gadgets and fashions to keep up the charade, instead of giving their child the gift of values and ethics by not participating in the new kid version of Keeping Up With the Joneses, but by being deliberate in their purchases and selections. Being popular, in the long run, is not about what one has, but who one is, treating people in such a way that they generally enjoy being around you.

Here, my little idea here has come full circle: we want our kids to have those qualities: pleasant, well-regarded, and grateful. So I know for our family, I have to start with myself. I was certainly grateful for the little girl who told me how much school meant to her. Her actions at school tell me more than her words: she's cooperative, enjoyable, easy to get along with and always brings me new ideas. It's not always about the 'please and thank you', sometimes it's just about moments like these. Our children have gratitude-- I think it comes inherent in some children, the way they look at us as babies as we nurse or feed them, with such a devoted gaze. We just have to help them let it shine.

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