Gratitude

I went to elementary school in the 1950s. It was a time when children sat in long rows and teachers stood at the front of the classroom with decorated bulletin boards and elaborate chalk writings on the blackboard. We learned reading and arithmetic and how to be good citizens. We were taught with painstaking care how to draw our script letters so that everyone in the class had beautiful penmanship. The message we had conveyed to us again and again was that our education was important and that we were the future leaders of the country and we needed to take responsibility and we needed to learn as much as we could to equip ourselves to take over when we were old enough. We had a responsibility to the society we lived in.

We also were taught something else… We were taught to take time to consider the world and its Creator. Back then, each morning began with the Bible being read for a period of a few minutes. Usually the readings were from the book of Psalms. My teachers seemed to favor Psalms 1, 8, 23, and 24. Sometimes the readings were from the book of Genesis- about the creation of the world. Sometimes they read from Proverbs and we learned about time to sow and time to gather and time of war and time of peace. The beauty of the King James translation was awe-inspiring. Each day began with a glimpse of the infinite.

And then, before our snacks, we said a poem.

Thank you for the world so sweet,
Thank you for the food we eat,
Thank you for the birds that sing,
Thank you God for everything.

I think that we learned that we were part of a very special created world and that we had the obligation to be grateful for all that was given to us. We could take nothing for granted. Everything was a gift of God.

I believe that that is precisely what is missing in the world we inhabit today. Children are not taught to be grateful. Their parents try to please them—they buy them things, take them places, and the children take it for granted! They even criticize the parents for not taking them good enough places or buying them nice enough presents. The children simply have not been taught gratitude.

As with other values, gratitude is both taught and caught. Children who see their parents as people who are grateful, who do not take their good fortune for granted, will themselves be grateful. Showering children with too many toys and gifts and treats gives them the message that the world owes them something. They expect to continue to receive and receive. Children who are taught to give of themselves—to help others, to take responsibility, begin to value what others do for them.

The concept of gratitude is more important than most people realize. In my practice, I have seen hundreds of children. Invariably, the meanest, surliest, most unhappy children were those who had been given everything. After a while, nothing means anything to them. They just want MORE! Conversely, parents who enable their child to earn a wanted item (a new bicycle, a scout uniform) produce a child who is grateful and happy when he finally earns his object of desire.

There are no hard and fast rules, though. I know one family where the children have every toy known to man (woman, and child!) However, these children appreciate any little toy or trinket they get. I believe the answer to this mystery is that the parents never have taken their good fortune for granted. They have worked hard for whatever they have and they are themselves grateful people.

Warning signs that you may be raising an ungrateful child:
1. You give your child a gift and he complains about it.
Reaction: “You don’t like this gift? OK, I will take it back.” Do not apologize or offer to get something better. Your child says he doesn’t like the gift; then he doesn’t get to keep it.
2. Your child focuses on what other people have.
Reaction: “You wish you had what Tommy has. Maybe you could think about something that you have that you like.” Do not go and buy the child the object. Do not sympathize that he doesn’t have it. Do not apologize that you can’t afford it. Life really isn’t fair. We don’t all get everything we want.

In the Jewish tradition we have a maxim that says, “Who is rich? He who is happy with his lot.” Parents need to believe this and then they need to teach it to their children

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