When I received You’re Not the Boss of Me: Brat-Proofing Your 4- to 12-Year-Old Child by Betsy Brown Braun, I went right to her chapter on Making a Gratitude Adjustment in your Child. This has always been one of my pet peeves. When I taught middle school in an affluent district in New Jersey, it used to drive me crazy to hear the kids respond, “Is this it?” after receiving a treat.
In my twenties, I traveled to the Ecuadorian rainforest for a volunteer vacation with a bag of T-shirts that my friend’s students had decorated in tow. Irene, a fellow teacher, had visited the same biological reserve the previous summer and insisted the kids would be grateful. Having grown a bit cynical in suburbia, I had my doubts, but she was right. When I opened up my sack and passed out the shirts at the local school, it was as if Santa had come. No one complained about their shirt being too big. No one whined about not liking their picture.
While my daughters have enjoyed presents over the years, I have yet to see anyone receive a gift with as much gratitude as those children did. Braun writes, “We all know that our children are more fortunate than most of the world’s population. Why don’t they feel it?” I’ve realized, from reading You’re Not the Boss of Me, that while I started off on the right foot, instructing my children to say thank you and involving them in the thank you note ritual, “feeling gratitude is a whole different story.” As Braun reminds us, “Children cannot be taught to feel gratitude, any more than they can be taught to feel anything. Feelings are things that have to grow from within. Seeds of genuine gratitude need to be sown.”
Granted, my kids know not to ask for something from the gift shop at Busch Gardens because the treat is simply getting to go to the amusement park and neither one would dream of pitching a fit in the grocery store line over a trinket at the check out counter. Still, I’m guilty of doing many of the things Braun lists as ways to sabotage gratitude.
- · Meeting all her needs. “Don’t automatically or always comply. Inform your child that she is able to get her own water or blanket. You can add, Showing appreciation for my help makes me want to help you.”
- · Negative associations. “When a parent says, You ought to be grateful for all the time I spent with you, the child might easily grow to associate expressing gratitude with being yelled at.
- · Reverse envy. Such as “You ought to be grateful. There are children who have no toys at all. Remember the child who always gets, doesn’t know any better. She has never had to go without, so how should she know what that feels like?”
- · Rhetorical questions. “My parents used to say, Don’t you know there are children who are starving in Africa? when we balked at eating our meals. The answer: No. I don’t really know about starving children.”
So where does gratitude begin? Braun argues, “The child’s feeling of gratitude will be encouraged to grow in direct proportion to the amount of time and effort involved in attaining or obtaining what she wants. A child who is taught to wait, to work, to save for what she wants, who is allowed to long for something before getting it, and sometimes doesn’t even get it at all, will surely feel appreciation when her desire is satisfied eventually. And at the same time, you will be teaching your child the crucial life skill of delaying gratification.”
You’re Not the Boss of Me offers great practical “tips and scripts” for allowing appreciation and gratitude to grow. Still I was struck by the final section of this chapter, Sowing the Seeds of Gratitude by Giving. In it, Braun points out not just the importance of sharing with others but also the need to model how it’s done.
This past holiday season, while the girls and I gathered toys they’d outgrown to share with others, my three-year-old asked me, “Mommy, why are you always trying to give away my stuff? What are you sharing?” Her question left me speechless (which doesn’t happen all that often). Sure, I had some old clothes on the pile, but I hadn’t even entertained the possibility of purging any of the I-may-need-these-someday items from the attic. Once again, Lily had proven that while I may be the boss, I still have a lot to learn.