Give Your Child Permission to Feel Ungrateful This Turkey Day

Feeling grateful for not having to feel grateful.
Feeling grateful for not having to feel grateful.

One thing I always hated about Thanksgiving as a child was this pressure, whether perceived or real, to feel grateful. There was this mandate as we went around a crowded holiday table to speak from the heart about gratitude. At that young age, I didn’t really appreciate what the word meant, except that it was something I was supposed to feel, and thus, something I intuitively resented from the moment it was first introduced to me.

And as it turns out, my experience wasn’t unique – I’ve since learned that emotions don’t operate the way we wish they would, in that we can’t just turn them on or off when others want us to.

So why do we – whether we’re parents, distant relatives, or random strangers – push children so hard to feel gratitude on Thanksgiving? Perhaps it’s because we want them to maximize their holiday experience, and so we end up distilling Thanksgiving down to its emotional essence and spoon-feeding that alongside candied yams to our kids. To ensure that they don’t blink and miss the magic of the moment.

Or maybe it’s because we parents recognize that we weren’t able to summon gratitude in the way we or others wanted us to when we were children, and we wish to provide our own kids with a different experience. Or perhaps we forget how it feels to sit on the other side of the table, being told we should feel a certain way, wanting at that moment only to push that feeling as far away as possible.

But regardless of our motivation, our efforts fall flat because emotions don’t obey our whims.

However, there are many ways in which we can try to cultivate feelings of gratitude in our children. For instance, by talking to our children about our experiences of gratitude – for togetherness, for feelings of acceptance and love, for the present moment – we have the opportunity to model the practice of noticing, cherishing, and sharing this positive experience. We can comment on what about them we feel grateful for – their curiosity, their openness, their authenticity – and what in our relationship with them we treasure. We can also wonder with them whether there are things for which they feel grateful this year, all the while allowing the possibility that there aren’t, or that they can’t find those feelings on Turkey Day.

Ultimately, we must remember that children’s minds and bodies will determine how they feel this Thursday. That realization may be disappointing, but at least for me, accepting this has helped Thanksgiving become my favorite holiday.

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