Nov 22, 2012

Creating a Culture of Gratitude in a World of Excess

It's Thanksgiving! A beautiful time of the year full of family and food and long fall walks after you're so full you can barely breathe.

I love Thanksgiving, it is one of my favorite holidays {I like it more than Christmas in some ways}, there are no expectations but time, {and maybe food}, and you see family near and far and spend time enjoying each other, catching up, watching growing children play and listening to stories from the older generations.

Each year I am saddened by the way Thanksgiving is encroached upon by Christmas shopping.  Turning a day to celebrate what makes America unique with family and friends, into a day that's purpose is pre-shopping Black Friday's chaos.

I began to wonder, how do I teach my children to be grateful and empathetic in the midst of a culture that is increasingly self-focused and materialistic??

A few of years ago, in the midst of writing a series of Thanksgiving posts, I wrote this one post, which included a conversation my then-6-year-old son had with my husband and I after the tragedy of one of the teachers at their school suddenly dying (just before Thanksgiving) from a heart attack.
"My Husband: You need to try to be extra nice to the children from his class.  My Son: Why?  My Husband: Because they are so sad that their teacher died.  Are you ready for the sensitive, empathetic response my son gave? My Son: Why? They have a sub. (at this point my eyes are watering from not laughing... because it would be wrong... but WHAT? Excuse me?! What is wrong with that kid?)  My Husband: Oh son, they will be sad for a long time. They'll never forget him.   My Son: Oh, I'm sure they'll forget him, eventually."
It was just a moment in time, but it began to change the way I trained my children.  Not because I felt like they were genuinely going to become psychos or something, but rather because I  recognized a weakness in my strategy.  I want my kids to become grateful and empathetic.  I want them to become people who can carry other people's burdens. {And clearly it wasn't a natural genetic predisposition in at least one of my kids}.

Some studies link together gratitude and empathy, and it's clear why. Both require the ability to actively consider another person, whether it's the other person's feelings or it's the other person's value and help.  

Every Tuesday morning I co-lead a Bible study for women called Mom 2 Mom. I asked this group of moms to share ways they foster a culture of gratitude and empathy in their kids.  There were just 8 of us there, with a combined number of children {step, adopted and natural} weighing in at 24 children with the oldest children in their 30's down to a 3 month old - serious experience in that room! This is what we decided:

Things that can contribute to a lack of gratitude and empathy:

  • just basic personality
  • lack of positive modeling (parents who complain, or are ungrateful)
  • immaturity and lack of experience
  • having a small world view (not being exposed to the hard reality others live with daily)
  • having a lack of responsibility in the home (not appreciating hard work)
  • living in a national culture of consumerism
  • an over abundance of stuff (not having any needs)
  • an over abundance of free time (not having many demands on their time)
This was not an exhaustive list, we just listed the most common road blocks to having an "attitude of gratitude."  Based on the above list, it's a wonder that ANY middle class kids are grateful.  As we talked I learned that many moms struggle with this issue, especially as the holidays approach and the "gimme" mind-set sets in.  Don't lose hope!  Just this week I've read a number of different articles that talk specifically about this issue, there are answers... and here are mine...

How to create a home culture that fosters gratitude and empathy:

It starts with you - You must learn to model in big and small ways what it looks like to be empathetic and what it looks like to be grateful.  Are we always "upgrading" our technology (even when the older model works perfectly fine?)  You children are listening, not just to your words, but to your actions as well.  When you hurt another person (emotionally or physically) do you tend to defend yourself or to try to comfort the other person?  Your kids are watching you, make the most of it!

The right conversations - Without lecturing or retreating to the tried and true "there are starving children in Ethiopia" guilt-fest, talking with your children about how fortunate they are can go a long way toward helping them become grateful and empathetic people. Making the most of teachable moments, like when you give money to the bell ringers or buy a lunch for a homeless person, can help your children understand poverty a little bit more when you talk to them about it.  

There are also studies that suggest that people who regularly talk about what they are thankful for, are actually more thankful.  Having a daily routine of sharing things they are grateful for will actually help your children become more grateful.  

Showing love without stuff - Stop buying your children's affection.  Sometimes I find myself buying something for my daughter that she doesn't need, just because she wants it.  It makes her exuberantly happy and we can afford it.   But at what price?  She might be happy now, but down the road she might equate stuff with love or stuff with happiness and contentment.  I will be doing my children a favor to show them love by spending quality time with them, without adding more stuff to their overflowing rooms.  Two different moms in our group (coincidentally) are planning on taking their 10 year old son to a concert rather than buying him another video game, a great example of quality time being valued.

Providing them with experiences to change their world view - whether it's a Missions trip to an impoverished area or watching a PBS special on poverty in third world countries, people learn best when hearing or watching or living a story.  My world view changed when I was 9 or 10 years old when we went on a Missions Trip to the Navajo Reservation in Arizona, I saw poverty and a different way people lived, and it helped me realize what I had. 

Other suggestions are: working in a food pantry or working at a church or organization that feeds the homeless with your children, sponsoring a child through an organization such as World Vision or Compassion International and exchanging letters with that child, regularly giving away gently used toys to shelters or domestic violence safe houses or even picking a Star off a Christmas tree and purchasing a gift for a disadvantaged family.

Creating a culture of service in your family - volunteering as a family at church, at community events or other service projects will help your children learn to serve others as a part of their lifestyle.   Having chores and responsibilities around the house such as setting the table or cooking, emptying the dishwasher or dusting, even emptying the trash helps your kids understand that they have responsibilities to other people {to show love to other people}, besides just themselves.

I think you catch my drift.  Gratitude and Empathy are such valuable character traits, it's worth changing or adding to my life to make that type of education more intentional. How do you talk to your kids about being grateful?

This post is a part of the "Becoming a Parent of Excellence" series, 
click the button below to read more. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

1 comment:

  1. This is a great post! I, too, love Thanksgiving. I think it is the least commercialized of all the holidays and is focused on family and maybe football. I've recently had to put together a speech or talk on Living in Thanksgiving Daily. I've learned a lot and mostly I've learned that when we live in Thanksgiving, it can change us. It was really an amazing topic to delve into. Thanks for following me. I'm following back. :)


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