A Healthy Twist on the Idea of Gratitude


I picked up a magazine and saw an article on teaching children a sense of gratitude. At first, my pulse raced. They might have just as well titled it: "Teach your kids to be guilt-ridden doormats, to be bootlickers, to have no self-esteem". I dislike the groveling feeling and the images that come with that word:

"You should be grateful for all the food on your plate. Do you know that there are children starving all over the world."
"So you got good grades…you're lucky that you have the smarts. Your sister isn't so lucky. You should be grateful."…
"You have a good job and a good home. Not all of us are so fortunate. You should be grateful for what you've got."
"God gave you a good wife and a happy family. You should feel grateful."
"Seems like I'm always going out of my way for you. You never do anything for me. You're so ungrateful."

The word "gratitude" brings back the drudgery of writing flowery thank-you notes for something I never asked for nor ever wanted. It brings back memories of focusing on all those "less fortunate" than myself (e.g., children starving in Biafra, bums on the street, less intelligent classmates). It focuses my mind on thanking some faceless, bodiless, unimaginable deity for the things I accomplished. The word gratitude is sometimes used as a weapon by people who "give" something (in martyr fashion) only to cash in at a later point (e.g., "I sacrificed for you and what do I get? Nothing!). In short, that one word, "gratitude" focuses my mind on duty and unearned guilt, on being small, humble and indebted to faceless people.

So I braced myself as I started to read this magazine article. Little did I realize that by the time I was finished, I would feel gratitude for that article. I would recognize a major mistake I had made as a parent and I would recognize times when gratitude was unquestionably warranted. I would be grateful for a different sense of the concept "gratitude". What did I discover? That gratitude, used in a healthy sense, is the act of recognizing the good in others and in yourself.

When I looked up the word and related words (e.g., gratify, grateful, gratuity) in the Oxford English Dictionary, it verified the negative sense of the term: to please by compliance, to comply with a request, something done to gain favour… a bribe, a free gift, a contribution of money made to a king.

But "gratitude" is also used in a good sense. It is used to describe a genuine warm sense of appreciation towards a specific person. It is used to show appreciation for a kindness you received, and to reward a person for something they did that you appreciated. Aha! I liked this sense of the word, recognizing and rewarding the good in others and in yourself. A different policy would be to ignore and take any good in others or in yourself for granted.

Let's use the example of Sharon. It's 9 in the evening, the night of her birthday. Not one of her three grown kids had remembered her. After all she had done for them: carpooling, cooking three meals a day for years, doctors visits, parent-teacher's meetings…. How had her kids turned out so uncaring? Why didn't they take 5 minutes out of their day to recognize her as someone important in their lives? She felt invisible; tears were falling. She felt angry—she is generous and makes a fanfare over their birthdays – why didn't her kids reciprocate. She felt guilty—how had she failed as a parent?

Where might Sharon have gone wrong in bringing up her kids? Sharon had vowed that she would never be like her parents. She would never force her kids to write phony thank-you notes. She would never force her kids to cater to her on her birthday. She would never attempt to make her kids feel guilty for nameless faces in the world. She would never attempt to make her kids feel lucky for their own hard-earned achievements. So Sharon decided that her kids didn't need to write thank-you notes, they didn't need to make a fuss or even recognize her birthday, nor did she make them feel guilty for having costly birthday parties. In an effort to avoid making her kids feel an unearned guilt, she hid facts from them about the effort and cost that went into pampering them and she let them off the hook when it came to focusing on her birthdays, her anniversaries and remembering her on holidays. She thought she had done her job well; she thought she had corrected the overbearing, guilt-inducing, duty-laden tactics that her parents employed with her.

What messages did Sharon unintentionally teach her children by her "new and improved" approach? They learned that mom is there to serve them, that they don't have to waste their time showing her appreciation and that mom is incidental, unimportant. If they tried to thank her, she would push it away anyway: "Oh, don't bother thanking me. It was nothing. Really." Her children learned that life is a one-way street – from mom to them – not a trade. They learned that the goodies in life don't require time and effort since they were shielded from the effort required to give them that vacation to Disneyland and buy them those 4 pairs of Gap jeans.

I knew that my kids needed to appreciate the effort that goes into getting the good things in life. My daughter earned her first bike (with training wheels). We bought it at a second hand store. She earned it by folding many loads of clothes. When she was older, she had a job and saved her money for a trip to London. My son paid for half of his airfare to Alaska when he worked there one summer.

They also learned a genuine sense of appreciation of others by observing my husband's and my own open appreciation. When a close family friend warmed our home with his playful antics, his quick wit, his intellectual curiosity and his medical advice, my husband reciprocated, surprising my son and our friend. He took both of them on a fun-packed trip to Disneyworld. My children write more genuine and playful thank-you notes than I ever did in my youth. They saw that I was quick to show my appreciation of them when we had a fabulous day together in a simple "Hey – let's go out toeat alone again sometime. I love your company." My children are not demanding. If they ever tried to say "Hey mom – make me dinner now!" Every fiber in me would say "no way" and I would say "That's not the way I like to be talked to. I won't be making dinner." I know it's wrong to appease such bossiness. I did well in raising my children in the above areas.

Here is what made me wish I could go back and parent my kids again. This is from an article titled "Thanks, Mommy" in Parents Magazine (9/99):

The mother of 10- and 11-year old daughters told me that when she was a child, she was expected to give her parents a card on their anniversary each year. "I don't remember how or why I learned to do that," she said "but I know that they looked forward to getting that card. They always gave me a hug, and I loved the whole idea of being part of their celebration."

Her own kids, by contrast, don't even know the date on which their parents were married. "We've been focusing so intently on them that we've neglected to encourage them to think about us," she lamented.

We all need to resurrect the expectation that kids should recognize their parents on certain occasions. It helps teach them that life is a two-way street. Permit yourself or your spouse to be the center of attention once in a while.

This is the mistake I made. I had allowed myself to be unimportant to myself. I didn't show my kids many celebrations of myself or of my husband. We downplayed our birthdays, omitting gifts and cakes. Even when my children came to my graduation for my Ph.D., I skipped out early, downplaying this event.

If my husband and I were treating ourselves as invisible, why should we expect our kids not to follow suit and ignore our birthdays and anniversaries? I had more of the attitude of the mother in the article: I was so focused on my children that I neglected to encourage them to think about my husband and myself. In celebrating their milestones, I did not teach them that life is a two way street – it's also fun for mom and dad to be the center of attention on occasion.

I then remembered one time I did celebrate myself with my daughter. It was the day I learnedthat I had gotten an interview for my graduate school program. I was so elated that I put my arms around her and jumped up and down with her uncontrollably, laughing happily. She has warm memories of that celebration to this day.

What a surprise—I had taught my kids not to celebrate us. It was not that they were ungrateful when neither of them knew that it was our 25th wedding anniversary (they didn't even know our anniversary date). I goofed. Don't make my mistake. Enjoy celebrating yourself with your children. Everyone wins. It teaches your kids to recognize and celebrate the good in you. It teaches them that relationships are a trade, not a one way street. It teaches them that it's healthy to celebrate oneself. And it does something else…it helps you acknowledge thatyou are worthy of recognition. Self-valuing and self-recognition, when earned, are healthy. It will add a dimension of richness to your own life and in your relationship with your children.

I still recoil at the typical use of gratitude – that guilt inducing, head lowering, self-effacing humble act. But I love the idea of teaching kids the value of recognizing and celebrating the good in themselves and in others. I love the idea of encouraging a healthy warm, genuine gratitude.