Updated: Sep 29, 2020
One of the first things most parents teach their children is to say “Thank you”. It’s a small thing, but important– it’s an acknowledgement that the giver was under no obligation give “it”, whether the item in question is a gift or a glass of water. As parents, we hope that teaching this small phrase to our child will be the beginning of an understanding of genuine gratitude. We know that children are naturally self-centered, and that it takes time to learn to be grateful.
We also know that there are things our children will not be able to appreciate for years–the firmness of a teacher, or the consistent discipline and long-suffering of a parent are things they’ll only appreciate as adults, when they are parents themselves. We send them to school with a basket of goodies for the teacher because we, as adults, now understand something of what the teacher is doing for our child, but the child honestly can’t really get it; not yet.
Here’s the thing about gratitude–it’s something that lives in the heart; it’s a realization that life doesn’t always bring us gifts, that nobody owes us anything–from our daily bread to treats and toys and opportunities to do fun things–and it’s an appreciation for those things when they do come our way.
Gratitude can’t really happen until we’ve experienced some kind of lack. We can teach the fact of gratitude, that we should feel grateful for the gifts of life and breath for example, but we don’t fully appreciate these gifts because they’re always with us and seem unremarkable. It isn’t until we’re struggling for breath, say, in the deep end of a swimming pool, or are in a car accident and feel a close brush with death that our gratitude becomes really and truly real.
So it is with our children; we surround them with love, we provide them with the food, clothing, and shelter they require, and we shower them with treats, toys, and fun opportunities. They have everything they need, and just about anything they want, to the extent that, in many cases, we cater to their every mood lest they become unhappy. Is it any wonder that they feel no genuine gratitude? We can hardly fault them for being selfish and demanding–if they whine and cry, we present them with a toy or a treat to quiet them. We say “no”, then reverse ourselves at their wheedling and begging–“just this once”. We pacify them with iphones and ipads, movies and TV shows lest they be made to endure a few minutes of boredom.
We should be embarrassed and ashamed! Can we really not see any further than the immediate gratification of a child, or bear to be the object of her disapproval? This is not how parents should behave. We have an obligation to teach our children how to delay gratification, yes –this is part of it. But we also must teach them that we might not EVER get what we want, and that this is okay. We must help them understand that throwing a tantrum is NOT the way to behave when we don’t get our way (in spite of the fact that we see adults doing that very thing on the news every day). Children need to understand that the world is NOT their oyster. Honestly, if parents of a previous generation had seen to this responsibility, there would not be such a problem with student debt, and the shameful college admissions cheating scandal would not have occurred.
So, without being angry with them or making a big deal out of it, here are some things that every parent can and should do for their children, starting today:
Give away (or store) most their toys. Limit each child to 5 favorites and get rid of the rest. I’m serious.
Stop rewarding them with treats for everything under the sun.
Make special things special by doing them rarely.
If something breaks, don’t replace it.
Stick to three meals a day, snack only at set times, and don’t cater to your children’s tastes– if they don’t want to eat what you prepared, fine, they don’t have to eat it, but there should be nothing else offered.
Make your children contributors to the family by requiring them to do a daily routine of chores (starting at age 3).
Teach them to respect their property and the property of others, with meaningful consequences for being careless or destructive.
Avoid the use of technology of any kind to pacify them, teaching them instead to enjoy books or other imaginative options–every person needs to know how to occupy himself during periods of inactivity and boredom without depending on technology (put down your phone!)
This will not be easy for most of us, partly because we have an over sentimentalized view of our kids, and partly because indulging them is much easier, and much more fun; it gives us the instant gratification of their momentary delight and approval, not to mention their occupation with something other than whining and complaining. But indulging children is to do them an unkindness. It sets them up for false and unrealistic expectations of the world around them, making them self-centered and discontented in the long run, addicted to the always new and entertaining.
How much better to teach them to work through disappointment, to learn to be content with what they have, and cultivate true gratitude for the people, things, and opportunities in their lives.