Busy families need to find ways to remember thankfulness. Make it a ritual to build on.
When it was his turn to share what he felt thankful for one Sunday night, our then 7-year-old took our blessings candle and muttered, “Now, let me just start with my unthankfuls!” We all laughed, and the term “unthankfuls” became part of our family’s vocabulary — reserved for those yucko-blucko days when we gather in the kitchen and take a number for our five minutes of uninterrupted complaining! The truth is, all of us, even our 7-year-olds, experience life’s inevitable “downs” — rejections, disappointments and losses. Sharing them helps our kids (and us) cope.
None of us, however, wants to raise a child who gets so caught up in the role of “victim” that he’s unappreciative of all the “good stuff” in his life. Selfish, ungrateful kids are simply not high on our “most wanted” list. Yet, in encouraging our children to experience and express gratitude, it’s easy to feel as if we’re flailing against the rushing currents of rampant materialism and a widespread sense of entitlement. As keen cultural observer and writer George Will pointed out in a recent column in the Washington Post, our society seems overrun by a “victimization machine,” in which the cultural admonition has changed from “count your blessings” to “nurse your grievances.”
Still, as parents, we can take heart that families remain the key place where our children learn to live and work with others, and where they can develop a genuine gratitude for life’s blessings. Fortunately, there is much that we can do as parents to insure that our children will grow up being the kind of appreciative people who are a pleasure to have around.
THANK YOUR KIDS
When I asked Janet Levitan, a family therapist, what parents could do to raise thankful kids, she simply replied, “Thankful kids are kids who’ve been thanked — whose parents tell them how much they appreciate the contributions they make to family life.” It’s vital to take every opportunity to let your child know, “Our family is a much better place because you’re here.” Whenever your child pitches in with dinner, helps you lug the groceries in, or comes to your rescue when your computer has gone on strike — thank her!
When we thank our children, we not only model courtesy and caring respect, but we also contribute to their self-esteem — the sense that they are loved, valuable and that they make a difference. As Richard and Linda Eyre explain in Teaching Your Children Sensitivity, it’s important to compliment our kids whenever we observe them being caring. “Children, particularly adolescents, thrive on praise and use it as fuel for their flame of self-esteem.”
MAKE “THANK YOU” A PART OF YOUR EVERYDAY
Children absorb much about how to treat others by watching us. When my husband hugs me and thanks me for a meal I’ve made, or I tell him how much I love his morning pancakes, our children get the idea that that’s “the way things are done!” In addition to modeling everyday acts of thankfulness, we can also create simple family rituals to encourage thankfulness. Our family’s Sunday night tradition of passing the candle and sharing what we’re thankful for is one example. Other families give weekly awards for “nice things their kids have done” or take a few moments at bedtime to talk over the blessings of the day.
It means a lot when we not only tell others we appreciate them, but put it in writing. One day last week, I came across one of our family’s “memory boxes” in the basement. When I opened the box, years of letters, homemade cards, poems and drawings spilled out. I wept as I re-read our children’s outpourings of love and appreciation for us, and ours for them.
When we make our family a place where expressing gratitude is part of everyday life, as well as our rituals and traditions, our children grow up knowing how good it feels to be on both the giving and receiving end of loving acts.
No matter how many lectures I received as a kid on the “poor starving children in China,” I never managed to feel grateful for those brussel sprouts or lima beans looming on my dinner plate.
The quickest way to get our children to tune out, of course, is to start lecturing and sermonizing on how they should feel. If we want our kids to be thankful, as well as sensitive to other people’s needs and problems, we must encourage them to develop the ability to empathize. Empathy, in turn, is dependent upon being encouraged to think about people’s feelings, our own and others, on a regular basis. A good way to do this is through questions: “How did you feel when …?” “How do you suppose she felt when …?” The “Ask-Don’t-Tell” method works particularly well since, as Thomas Lickona notes in Raising Good Children, as children get older, the ability to think abstractly and to imagine how others are feeling develops dramatically. At the same time, young teens desperately want to know we respect their intelligence and ability to figure things out on their own.
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D., author of Raising Ethical Children, says that in talking with older children, it works best to simply ask them to respond to the question, “How would I like it if the situation were reversed?” Whether the issue is not bothering to write a thank you note to Aunt Grace for a birthday gift, or breaking a date with a friend “because you’ve had a better offer,” this is a powerful question, far more effective than any parental pronouncement.
DON’T HOG THE GIVING!
One summer, when my older son was about to return home after visiting his dad, my husband and I became so excited we decided to make him a homecoming surprise by redecorating his room.
Can you guess what happened? Our preteen wasn’t thankful at all. In fact, he noisily complained about every aspect of our decorating job. The colors weren’t right, we’d gotten the wrong posters and the bedspread was downright ugly. As we talked with him more, we realized what he really resented was our not involving him in the decision-making about what was, after all, his special space. How much better if we’d waited until he’d come home and asked him if and how he’d like to fix his room up, and then offered our help.
Like many parents, I’ve often fallen prey to the tendency to want to give and do everything for my children. Kids are not served well, however, when we “hog the giving.” Particularly as our children enter the preteen and teenage years, they thrive on having their input solicited and on being involved in the decision-making and execution of projects, including creating gifts both for themselves and others.
When our children are given opportunities to take responsibility and give to others both at home and in the community, not only do their self-esteem and sensitivity to others increase, but they’re also more likely to appreciate other people’s caring acts.
The truth is, we are more apt to be gracious receivers if we’ve experienced the joy of giving. And when as parents we hog the giving, the costs can be high. As Linda and Richard Eyre warn, “It is in societies like our own, where too much is given and too little is expected, that teenagers show such propensity to be insensitive to others and wrapped up in their own needs and wants.”
Ultimately, except in fairy tales, none of us ever lives happily ever after with no problems. But we can help our children enjoy and celebrate life’s abundant blessings by making our families caring places where “How can I help?” and “Thank you” are parts of the fabric of everyday life.
Lynn Slaughter is a mother and syndicated freelance writer who writes frequently on parenting issues.