There are so many important things that I hope my kids learn in life. Gratitude is one of those values that I hope my kids take with them into the world. Like many households, we try to instill gratitude in our children. “Please” and “Thank-you” are required vocabulary for my kids, and I have a habit of prompting them to go further and say specifically what they appreciate about someone or about a gift – “I liked the special dessert you made” or “I don’t have any toys like that – I’m excited to have one now.” So many times, I am really touched to hear what it is they notice with their sincere candor. Children can be so honestly grateful.
Recently, I had a series of experiences that gave me another perspective on cultivating gratitude in our family. My son is a little sugar monster, and, for a long time, I allowed him to raid his candy jar after dinner for dessert. I reasoned that I monitored what he ate all day with care, and that a piece of candy at the end of the day was no problem. My husband protested that our little boy did not need a nightly dessert, but I continued the pattern. Our routine was interrupted by a cavity, which made my mama heart so sad for him that I was willing to stop the nightly candy jar raid despite the potential revolt. Our son was not impressed with my parenting – he was downright ungrateful, I think. But I was determined to stay the course, and we stopped having dessert every day. After a few dozen nightly protests on our son’s part, we settled into a new normal and life went on its merry way. A few months later, we ate dinner and finished like we usually do – the kids clear their plates and go off to play before getting ready for bed. I had been given a few special pieces of candy that day at work, and grabbed one for each of my children. I found my son in his room, absorbed in his Legos. “Here is a little treat tonight, sweetie,” I said, handing him the candy. He looked up at me with a surprised look, pausing as he looked at the candy in his hand. He looked up at me, and, with what I can only describe as a grateful heart, he said, “Wow. Thank you, Mom.”
My daughter and I had a similar experience. She is responsible for folding and putting away her clean laundry, and that happens to be one of her least favorite tasks. I frequently find her on her bed with a book, surrounded by half-folded piles of clothes. But eventually she gets it done. One night, I came into her room to find her working on her laundry. It had been a long, busy day, and I could see how tired she was. “How about you finish getting ready for bed, and I put your laundry away,” I offered. She looked at me with her big, brown eyes with such appreciation, “Really? Thanks, Mom.” She finished getting ready, climbed into bed and watched me finish putting her clothes away.
For my son, it was the lack of candy that made him appreciate the offer of a treat; for my daughter, it was the offer of help to make a less-than-favorite task easier that triggered gratitude. I began thinking about the abundance that our family currently experiences. We are lucky to have abundance in so many areas – food, clothing, toys, family, a good education. But these observations have made me want to be intentional about creating more scarcity in our lives to create opportunities for appreciating abundance. If we sit in abundance at every turn, we can become oblivious to what we could be grateful for. Scarcity, hardship and challenge allow us to exercise our gratitude muscles.
I have noticed that the more life I encounter, the more I feel grateful for things that I took for granted before. I am more grateful for my health after having my own medical issues, and after watching friends and acquaintances face illness and mortality. I eat my food differently when I remember that somewhere in the world there is someone right now who is without food. The small things in life – being able to walk, eating a meal, having friends over, enjoying a warm house – take on a deeper meaning when we realize that each of those things can change in a heartbeat.
Gratitude can only be appreciated with the awareness that abundance is often only apparent when we acknowledge the presence of scarcity. The feast is appreciated after the fasting. My prayer is that I can be grateful for both.