More than a few Thanksgiving mornings will start with parents taking their children to shelters and churches to prepare and serve turkey to the homeless before coming back to a holiday meal of their own. Around many a family table, thanks will be given -- for the food, for whatever good the year, and in some homes children will be asked "what are you thankful for?" It will be a variation on the ritual we might also practice on an average weeknight, at dinner or maybe at bedtime, where we share with our children a "highlight or lowlight" (that's author David Code's preferred term), or a "best part and worst part" of our day, or "one thorn and one rose" (the Obamas use that image.) We do all this to teach them to appreciated what is good in their lives -- to teach them gratitude.
Why? Because gratitude is a mark of a good person. And because the world is made better by people appreciating what they have and paying it forward. And maybe because our religion preaches it, or our own upbringings emphasized it, or our personal moral compass points us there.
And yet you could argue that another of our priorities, another of the pillars of today's parenting, undermines the learning of gratitude. How many of us would say that our primary goal as parents is for our children to be happy? "Parents often tell me that their child's happiness is their top priority," writes Detroit psychologist Sheri Moskowitz Noga in her new book Have the Guts to Do It Right: Raising Grateful and Responsible Children in an Age of Indulgence. This goal, also laudable on its face, can lead parents to supply their kids with every game and gadget they can afford, to protect them from dangers that are more imagined than real, to put them at the center of their parenting universe, to jump in whenever the going gets hard and smooth the way.
And what we miss in this pursuit of happiness, Noga writes, is that we are really doing the opposite for our kids. After all, what makes humans happy? An appreciation of what they have in the world, and a feeling of satisfaction at having earned it. In other words, gratitude. But by handing children so much, and insisting on so little, we are robbing them of exactly what we most want them to have, she writes. With all that stuff and no feeling that they might fall, it is all but impossible for a child to focus on what to be grateful for in life.
So stop pushing happiness at them quite so forcefully, Noga argues, and there might be room for a little gratitude to take hold. The good news (perhaps) is that you lead by example. "Children will absorb and model their parents gratefulness or lack thereof," she writes. "An entitled parent will likely raise an entitled child."
And a silver lining kind of news is that the slowed economy is the perfect setting in which to teach gratitude -- far better than the boom boom years when, by some measures, we actually had more to be grateful for:
As our economy struggles to recover and many people learn to live with less, we are offered an opportunity to develop a more normal range of wants and a deeper appreciatoin of what we have. The insanity of excess has caused many adults to feel unfulfilled as they get caught up in the cycle of wrking to buy things they don't need, possessions that willl not bring true happiness and satisfaction. Many people have bought into the lie that more is better and are raising their children iwth that same empty notion.
Is there a roadmap in here for the holiday season? An admonition that by scrambling less frantically to give children happiness, we give them space to find it for themselves, and to be grateful for it when they do --which, in the end, is what makes us most happy. As Noga writes:
...in teaching your child to be grateful and responsible, you will equip them with the tools to create a meaningful life. It is through our sense of accomplishment and connection with others that our eyes are opened to all the world has to offer. Whether getting a paycheck at the end of a hard week's work, walking through a forest, or sharing a meal with a friend, it is by bring present to ones self and another that life take on meaning.