A journey in the car with the kids in the back can go many ways. Sometimes, we feel harassed by incessant squabbling that we’re not able to get to the bottom of because we can’t see what ‘s really going on. Other times, we get to quietly listen in on the conversations between our children and feel our hearts flutter with what they say. This is a story about the latter.
It was a Friday afternoon. Thomas (almost 3 years old) had been to kindy and Jake had been to school. As I drove, they were exchanging notes on their days – sandpits, train sets, playground adventures and friends. Then, totally unprompted, Thomas said, “I’m grateful for kindy”. Fortunately, we were stopped at traffic lights, otherwise I might have driven off the road. Even Jake realised that this was a momentous moment for our family – “Mum, Thomas just said he’s grateful for kindy!” This was the first time we had heard Thomas spontaneously share his gratitude.
Gratitude is important in our family. We have a few simple habits – rituals – to help us keep gratitude active in our hearts and minds. When tucking the boys into bed at night, we each share something we’re grateful for. This year, we also began a gratitude jar. Every Sunday night, we each write something we’re especially grateful for from the past week on a piece of paper (we each have our own colour). We then fold the pieces of paper up and put them in the large jar that sits in the hall. The idea is that, on 31 December, we’ll each have 52 special moments to reflect on and appreciate. If it’s been a tough year, we’ll realised there has still been lots to be grateful for. If it’s been a “good” year, we’ll appreciate it even more. We also get to think about the things we have written on our pieces of paper every time we walk past the jar in the hall.
“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is ‘thank you’, it will be enough”. – Meister Eckhart
GRATITUDE AS AN ANTEDOTE TO ENTITLEMENT…AND SO MUCH MORE
Of course, there are plenty of times when it feels like the “attitude of gratitude” I’m trying to cultivate has disintegrated to dust. On that Friday afternoon, Thomas and I had picked up Jake from school and surprised him with the news that we were taking our scooters to the skate park. Currently one of Jake’s favourite hang-outs, he was thrilled. But there was no “thank you” on hearing the news. In fact, his first words were, “can we get ice-creams too?” *@?#! When our scootering was finished and it was time to go home, he kept whining, “why can’t we stay a bit longer?” I found myself recycling my mother’s sentiments – “I’m not going to take you for treats if you’re always going to ask for more. Why can’t you appreciate what you have?!” (In Jake’s defence, he did thank me afterwards and is often very appreciative of his own accord.) Then I grumbled to myself, “I don’t know why I bother doing nice things for them, it’s never enough. How did they become so entitled?” I want to be able to treat my boys sometimes without them expecting it all the time.
We can become a bit complacent about gratitude these days. It’s been a bit of a buzz word for a number of years now and every gift shop has items with sentiments of gratitude on them – mugs, prints, journals, ornaments, magnets… (I do like the quote “When I count my blessings, I count you twice”, though.) But gratitude is powerful – it cultivates real joy and empowerment. On one occasion when entitlement was in full swing, I said to Jake, “When you’re grateful, you’re too busy enjoying yourself to think about what else you want and it helps you to notice even more things to be grateful for”. Gratitude gives us a sense of our cup running over and, in turn, our capacity to be generous, creative and forgiving, for example, expands.
So, gratitude is not just a temporary pick-me-up technique. Gratitude helps us to tap into the abundance (in all senses of the word) that is available to us and our own capacity to serve. I imagine how I would have felt as a child to know that I had so much myself and so much to give. I would’ve been happier and felt more powerful.
BUILDING OUR CHILDREN’S ATTITUDE OF GRATITUDE
Here are some quick ideas we can use to start building our children’s gratitude.
Create regular opportunities to share something they’re grateful for. Get the whole family involved in quick, simple moments of gratitude.
Be a grateful example – when I’m grateful for something, I sometimes share it aloud, in the moment. I try to point out a variety of things I’m grateful for. My boys pretty much stick to toys, outings and unhealthy food at this stage, but I try to include acts of kindness, beauty in nature, health and other people, for example.
Encourage genuine appreciation instead of polite thanks when they receive something (eg. a gift or help). This is hard and I haven’t yet discovered the best way to do this. With young children, it can be difficult to get a genuine “thank you” from them of their own accord. When it comes to gifts, after each birthday party, I help Jake to write thank you notes. We discuss the effort each person has gone to to select the gift for him and include in the note one thing he likes about it.
When my boys are behaving in an entitled way, I’ve started saying, “Put on your gratitude glasses”. I think I’ve lectured enough for Jake to know what I mean. It’s a fun reminder rather than a disapproving instruction to choose gratitude.
Avoid calling our children “ungrateful”, as if they have done something wrong. This turns them off gratitude because it seems like something they should be rather than what it really is – a choice to live in fullness, joy and service.
IN SUMMARY: PLANTING THE SEED OF GRATITUDE
Entitlement seems to be a modern-day parenting issue that is difficult to navigate – ironically, a case of external abundance and internal lack. My hope is that a focus on gratitude can do something to offset it. We can’t make our children be grateful but we can demonstrate a life of gratitude and invite them to share in it with us. Hearing Thomas announce that he is grateful for kindy, is reassuring. Perhaps all those things we try to teach our children don’t just go in one ear and out the other. Even if we don’t currently see any evidence of our children taking it on board, they are absorbing it. We have planted the seed.