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Teaching Gratitude to Kids That Have Plenty

I don't want to teach my kids gratefulness just so they can be good. I want to teach them to be grateful so that no matter how much they have (or don't have), they will never be truly poor.
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Little girl in pink fairy dress, holding up a child's drawn thank you sign.
Little girl in pink fairy dress, holding up a child's drawn thank you sign.

When I was a boy, my mother, brother, and I fell on hard times. For our purposes here, it doesn't matter how we got there. Suffice it to say we were crippled by a debt we didn't run up and crushed by a hope that never materialized.

In that long season of tribulation, food was sometimes in short supply. On one particular occasion, the outlook for supper had turned very bleak. The cupboards were bare; the fridge was a sepulcher. As the clocked ticked ever closer to dinner time, I could see the panic build in my mother's face. "Set the table," she said. My brother and I obeyed, mostly out of curiosity, and set up the folding card table we used for meals. Once the settings were prepared, we all sat down in silence. "Okay, let's bless the meal," came next. It was either too bold or too desperate of a plea to deny. At the time, I could not tell which. "Lord, we thank you for your goodness"... knock, knock, knock. "Stay here, boys." Answering our door at the time wasn't always a simple enterprise - we never knew what might be on the other side. Mama opened the door, cried out in a loud voice, and collapsed in the doorway. There, on the concrete stoop outside our door, were dozens and dozens of grocery bags jam-packed to the top. If you, dear reader, are incredulous at this tale then please consider how unbelievable it was to us. There were so many items that we literally could not store them all in our meager kitchenette. We meticulously unpacked each sack as children opening Christmas packages, the greatest game of show and tell I've ever played.
After the shock had settled and the wares were put away, we sat back down at that same table we had set in mime- now brimming with feast- and finished the prayer.

Fast forward to yesterday...

I picked up the kids from school and we headed to the tire shop. We had picked up a nail in the alleyway and needed a replacement. After the man looked it over and gave me an ETA, me and the kiddos started out on a search for ice cream. We landed in fro-yo heaven. A clean, cool place to sit after our long walk, each of us enjoying our own concoction. We dished about the schoolday and watched a little TV. The tire man called and said they were finished. I called an Uber to take us back. As I stood at the counter paying for the new tire, I heard a commotion in the lobby. It was my child. He was beside himself because he couldn't have any candy from one of those 25 cent machines. Full stop.

I cannot describe the admixture of sorrow and rage that I feel in those moments- the ones where the children take it all for granted. It hurts me in a way far beyond all others. "Do you not remember, child, the cool of that room that we just left, the taste of that treasure we just consumed? Do you not know, my precious one, that we just paid for a new tire that we can actually afford... for a reliable vehicle that we've already paid off?" I know they are little. I know it. But, I cannot help but feel as though this is the greatest challenge I face as a parent to kids who have plenty:

How can they be full of thankfulness when they've never known hunger?

Why should they quiver with glee at delights a dime-a-dozen?

I don't know the answer, in sum. But I do know this part- I am assured of this one thing:

You MUST, at some crucial juncture, introduce your child to suffering.

Whether they are visited by it personally or are exposed to it in the plight of others around them- it is a necessary ingredient for rendering souls who are attuned to gratitude. It is a complicated business, a riddle with which all parents must wrestle, how to protect their innocence and protect them from it, all at once. I proffer no great strategic insight, only this final observation:

A little boy crying at a vending machine for the next treasure, the latest gotten good already fallen dead in his mouth.

...This is a grand metaphor for the bottomlessness and insatiability of the thankless heart.

Greed and ingratitude are the greatest sorts of poverty. They render you hungry again in the time it takes to put down your fork.

I don't want to teach my kids gratefulness just so they can be good. I want to teach them to be grateful so that no matter how much they have (or don't have), they will never be truly poor.

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This article first appeared here on The Dad Issues. To see more from Bret Spears, follow him on Facebook.