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Just Another Gratitude Post

(But not the one you think)

Here we are, Thanksgiving 2019. We’re off to the races with the usual gazillion posts about gratitude—articles about why it’s so important, how its expression influences brain activity, the various ways to encourage both the feeling and the practice in our children. This means the usual gazillion opportunities for parents to feel ashamed that their little ones are not the precious embodiments of gratitude they’re supposed to be. Sigh.

As is often the case, real life can look quite different from everything you read. Some of our little ones, much to our dismay, will pay tribute to their LOL doll collection, or their new Paw Patroller when asked by an adult what they’re thankful for this year. Others recite “my family and friends, my school and the earth” with such a blank stare it seems possible they’ve been taken over by zombie robots. And we, their parents, feel our cheeks get hot and our hearts race, because clearly we’ve been doing the whole teach-our-kids-to-feel-grateful thing wrong.

Most of us agree that raising children who are thankful for all they have, with an awareness of the ways in which they are privileged, is important, fundamental even. And yet, what’s too often neglected in these conversations—to the resulting shame of parents everywhere—is that teaching children to feel and experience gratitude in a deep and authentic way is a process—a non-linear, and sometimes complicated process.

A quick personal anecdote about my older son, Henry, age five-and-a-half. A few Sundays ago, Henry agreed to go to the supermarket with my husband. His enthusiasm was notable, and, for a few moments, I couldn’t help but feel proud. Check out my kid! He’s such a helper! He’s not only willing but eager to contribute to the household chores! Clearly, I am a wonderful mother!

And then, as he was putting on his shoes, the question—that question—came out of his mouth:

“Mommy, can I get a toy when I’m at the supermarket with Daddy?”

“No, Sweetie Pie.”

Cue: Full collapse onto the floor, sudden termination of sneaker-velcro'ing, genuine tears.

Drobot Dean/Adobe Stock
Source: Drobot Dean/Adobe Stock

“Why? I really, really, REALLY want to get a toy!”

I took a deep breath. “Honey, you got slime and a new puzzle yesterday [true story]. You don’t get to get something new every time you leave the house.”

Henry looked up at me, tears filling his eyes: “But why, Mommy? I want to get something new every time I leave the house!”

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t triggered, didn’t feel a bit of whiplash. After all, it seemed I’d just gone from having the most helpful and generous child in the world to having the most selfish and spoiled child in the world, which meant I’d just gone from being a wonderful mother to a terrible one. And all in just a few moments. The good news is that I recognized I was triggered—those hot cheeks, that speeding heart rate—and so I paused to take a deep breath.

Here’s what I was able to remember as I felt the cool air fill my lungs, then slowly exit my mouth:

1. That Henry is five and a half. He’s still a little kid, just learning about how the world works. So far, among many other things, he knows that he loves getting new things. He has also learned that asking for things sometimes gets you things (simple cause and effect) he frequently gives that strategy a shot when there’s something he wants. Young children are often, by definition, hedonists: if something feels good, then they want more of it. It’s that simple. This is normal, and does not represent greed or selfishness. Henry would like to get something new every time he leaves the house. Wouldn’t you?

2. That I see myself in Henry, which is part of what’s triggering. We all have good days and bad days, “eager helper” moments and “what’s-in-it-for-me” moments. The difference is that, as a young child, Henry doesn’t yet know that he should probably keep the latter to himself, maybe fake it a bit. Don’t we all have times we prioritize personal gain more than we’d like to admit? Let’s not label our kids as spoiled or selfish when what we’re really noticing (if we’re honest with ourselves) is that they have no filter.

3. That getting upset about the little things does not mean you aren’t grateful for the big things. We don’t teach our children gratitude by prohibiting their feelings of disappointment, sadness, or frustration. When I was little (and I’m about to date myself), I was incredibly impacted by the famine in Ethiopia, meaning that whenever I felt upset about something—I was homesick at camp, I didn’t get to be Laura when we played “Little House on the Prairie" at recess, I couldn’t watch TV—I immediately told myself that I wasn’t allowed to feel my feelings, because at least I wasn’t starving in Africa. Is there some level of gratitude and acknowledgment of privilege in this sentiment? Sure. Is it also distorted and not particularly healthy? Yes. We don’t do our children any favors. In fact, we may be setting them up for some long-term negative consequences—when we send the message (even if not explicitly) that gratitude is meant to supplant every bad feeling ever.

4. My worth as a parent does not, cannot, hinge on my child’s reactions. Henry is his own person. If I base how I’m doing as a mom on his mood and behavior fluctuations, then I’m going to be in for a roller coaster ride, and the parent-child relationship is going to suffer. Henry needs the space to be his own person without the pressure of having my ego attached to his every move. There’s a lot more to say about this. [Note to self: Future blog post.]

After exhaling, I looked at Henry. “Aw, Buddy,” I said. “I hear you. It’d be pretty cool if we all got something new every time left the house.” He sniffled. I velcro’d his sneakers. “It would be like getting a prize for just. . . walking through the door,” I continued. “For taking on the day when it’s not always so easy.”

He nodded in agreement, then went to join my husband in the car.

Happy Thanksgiving.