In all things give thanks… The five year old just celebrated her birthday. She received a predictably mountainous and diverse pile of presents from family and friends, and we had a princess party with Rapunzel wigs, manicures, make up, and an assortment of little princess activities. As any parent might, we made a big deal out of her day. Yet as her daddy, I asked myself before the party and after: what lessons are my little girl learning from this showering of attention and gifts, and are those lessons the right ones?
There are obvious lessons: I am special. I am loved. I am blessed. I am liked. My life is appreciated.
There are subtle lessons: Some people brought me nicer gifts than others. Some people seem to be having a better time than others. Some people seem to be sad (or angry) that I am the one receiving all the attention. Some people wish they had my toys.
And there are some lessons that are insidious: I didn’t get as many presents as my older sister got at her birthday. I think the present I got my friend for her birthday party is better than the one she got me. The party I went to last month was much more fun than my party. I don’t have as many friends as some of my other friends do.
You get the idea – all of these are non-specific and all of them apply. I am amazed as a still-rookie Daddy that these lessons are taught and learned at such a tender age. Yet it is my responsibility to lead my family through them: contentment, envy, fairness, jealousy, joy… but our focus for today is gratitude. As you develop a plan for teaching your kids to be grateful, consider these things:
1. You can’t teach what you don’t know.
Before you can teach anything to anyone – and especially your kids – you’re going to need to understand what it is you are teaching them. The word “gratitude” come from the same latin root word from which we derive the word “grace”. Although grace and gratitude don’t share precisely the same meaning, they are two sides to the same coin. Indeed, one could make a strong case that the proper response to grace is gratitude.
So, start like this: make a list of the graces you experience in your own life. Life itself is a good place to start, and while you are at it, think of other people who have led you, and taught you, and corrected you. And maybe even consider how people who have been less than gracious to you have shaped you in ways that have somehow or another worked out well. You can continue from there. Perhaps (and hopefully!) your children themselves are high on this list. Make certain that you consider how the people in your life figure into the grace/gratitude spectrum. This could as easily be called “counting your blessings”, but your list will have greater meaning to you and your kids if you write it down.
2. Consider the proper response.
Working from your list, make a second column: how should you respond to the gifts you have been given? If you have a favorite toy, is it enough to say thank you? Or is an appropriate response found in how the toy is used, maintained, taught and shared? Write down ways that the people, things, and other graces in your life have been and should be best appreciated. And then? Share with your family the things for which you are most grateful. Take your list of blessings counted and thanks to be given, and… you know… give thanks!
3. Be grateful (and don’t be sneaky about it).
Every evening at bedtime we have in our house “blessing time”. That’s the time right before bed when we give thanks to God, and in which my wife and I tell each of our children specifically the things about them for which we are thankful. Sometimes it’s just getting to sing a song or read a story together. Sometimes it’s an observation about how they shared a toy or looked after their siblings. Sometimes, on hard days, it’s more difficult than that, and we have to dig deep to remind ourselves that these bratty, self-centered kids we live with are an answer to our prayers and that we love them more than we love ourselves. And on the very hardest of days, our blessings come in the form of asking our children to forgive us for the shoddy job of parenting we might have exhibited that day, and in being grateful for the forgiveness given.
In any event, share your list with your kids. They need to know what you are thankful for. They need to know why. And then they need to see you respond appropriately. If you can’t show them these things, then go back to #1 above and start over. Which leads me to:
4. Confess when you aren’t grateful, and explain why
I’ve noticed in my kids that sometimes they can be pretty lousy at saying “thank you”, and even lousier at times when it comes to meaning it when they do say it. They get that trait from their father. Too many times I catch myself complaining about how things aren’t going as I would like them to go. More often that that I find myself complaining that my kids aren’t doing what I’ve told them to do. And sometimes I find myself intensely frustrated by my own special brand of getting things sideways and screwing things up. It’s these times that I am best at making things into other people’s fault. In blame-shifting. In envy. In jealousy. In wishing I had something different or better or more wonderful or newer or fancier than I have it.
It is in these times that my children learn the most from me, because it is in these times that my own emotions are running at their peak and that I am most emphatic in my communication. And so from these times, it’s important that we are mindful of what we are teaching. I’ve found that I’m good at teaching lessons about entitlement, anger, impatience, and any other of a long list of life lessons that I would rather my children not learn from my (ahem) “positive” examples.
So the best teaching lesson here? Remind yourself that the opposite side of the gratitude coin is grace, and showing grace to yourself and your kids is a powerful lesson in teaching gratitude. When I exhibit the worst of my character, I have the best opportunity to teach and to lead. If I am mindful enough, it is in these moments that I can get down on the same level as my children, and look them in the eye, and explain that daddy gets frustrated and angry and disappointed, just like them. That I often times want lots of things that I don’t get, just like them.
And almost always, in my experience, when I share my disappointments and failures and frustrations with my children, I am met with hugs and smiles and “I love you Daddy!”
… and just like that, I’m back to being grateful again, because my children, it turns out, are wonderful teachers.
This is part two in a series of articles on teaching and leading your children. Part one, which introduces the series, can be found here.