With the holiday season upon us, it seems like the perfect time to reflect on how to raise grateful children. Recently, I’ve noticed a lot of articles like “10 ways to raise a child with gratitude” and “5 strategies for instilling kindness.” As I reflect on how I can intentionally parent my child so as to cultivate these virtues, I am faced with an inescapable truth. No strategy, no number of techniques will have much effect if I do not live out those virtues myself. I find this particularly challenging when it comes to gratitude. I try to be grateful. I say “please” and “thank you.” My family each lists something from the day that we are grateful for as part of our nightly routine. I regularly volunteer and try to do for others both inside and outside of my social circle. Despite all that, if I’m being honest, most of my waking hours are filled with feelings of expectation, more than appreciation.
I recently listened to a podcast where psychotherapist, Esther Perel, described this feeling of expectation as a happiness mandate. She argues that for most of human history, suffering was omnipresent. Most people looked forward to happiness in some afterlife, but they did not expect it here on Earth. In contrast, those of us in developed countries today, have grown accustomed to comfort. We not only hope for happiness, but demand it. If we’re cold or hot, we turn on the heat or the A/C. If we need clean clothes, we put them in a machine and in an hour, we’ve got them. Personally, I don’t know anyone who feels gratitude when they change the thermostat setting or are folding laundry. We are privileged and with that comes entitlement. We feel entitled to happiness. And this entitlement creates a happiness paradox. We’ve become so focused on being happy that we’re constantly searching for what will make us even happier and therefore we are frequently unhappy.
I know I am guilty of this incessant and oftentimes subconscious compulsion to find the best, the thing that will make me happiest. It impacts everything from the ridiculous amount of stress I feel choosing what to eat and making grocery lists to big, existential questions like, “what am I doing with my life?”
Another case in point: I wake up and walk into the kitchen to find my husband feeding our son. I immediately find myself upset at the mess in the kitchen and that my son isn’t eating the right thing. Instead of being happy when my husband does something helpful, I am frustrated that it wasn’t done when or how I wanted. Now, I am not saying all household/child rearing duties are mine and so I should be overjoyed when my husband lifts a finger. What I am saying is that I think both of us would be happier if we focused more on appreciating each other’s efforts as opposed to looking for ways in which our partner could be better. In the breakfast example, my reaction certainly didn’t make me feel happy. Conversely, I started my day in a bad mood and felt guilty for how I treated my husband when he was trying to do something nice for me.
The truth is, I chastise my child for being upset when he doesn’t get what he wants and yet I model that same behavior countless times every day. I don’t think these feelings make me a terrible person. I think they’re natural. Gratitude, on the other hand, is intentional. It takes practice and focus. It takes a shift in perspective. I’m never going to cease having expectations nor should I. However, I can be more mindful of when and why I’m feeling frustrated. I can take a step back and ask, “what’s more upsetting, the situation in and of itself or the fact that it fell short of my expectations?” And, I can try to use those moments as opportunities to look at the situation from a different perspective — through a lens of gratitude.
While I don’t see myself ever enjoying folding mountains of laundry, I do think it’s possible to recognize how fortunate I am that my family has so many clothes and a machine that does the hard work for us. This holiday season, I want to challenge myself to see opportunities for gratitude when I am feeling stressed or frustrated. I want to stop looking for what will make me happier and start seeing all the sources of happiness already present in my life. Because if I truly want my son to live a life of gratitude, it has to start in a home that is full of it.