One morning last year, my seven-year-old son was having a meltdown over not being able to take his beyblades to school. (If you don’t know what beyblades are, you do not have a seven year old son they are spinning tops that “fight” other spinning tops. I know, I don’t get it either.) Which, if he is not allowed to do, means he will have to walk – walk! – home after getting off the school bus to retrieve them, because he likes to go directly to his best friend’s house, which is in front of the bus stop, to commence the spinning top fighting. This then turned into a long-winded and loud diatribe about how he doesn’t even have any toys at all, and how mean I am to not let him play with what little he does have. At this point I had a choice: to take the bait, or not to take the bait. I won’t keep you in suspense; I took the bait.
As he’s storming out the door and up the street to the bus stop, I shout “No toys? I’ll show you no toys! You’ll get them back when you learn to be thankful for what you have!” Over his shoulder, from two houses up the street, in earshot of the entire neighborhood, he makes tight little fists and screams at the top of his lungs, “I will NEVER be thankful!” For those of you just joining us, this is what we call a Colossal Mindfulness Fail (CMF). If you’d like to reconsider subscribing to this blog, I don’t blame you. In my defense, they say the shoemaker’s children are always barefoot.
Incidents like this one are a glaring reminder that kids don’t have the same brains that grown-ups do. Although a seven-year-old certainly has the capacity to feel gratitude, chances are that child will not express it in the same way you or I would. For some kids, perhaps the less mature, or the child who has difficulty identifying and expressing emotions, the word “thankful” is very abstract and therefore somewhat meaningless. Add to the mix the well-known-but-not-yet-scientifically-proven fact that children do the exact opposite of what their parents want them to do, and we have a dilemma. We tell our children they should be thankful, but we don’t explain to them what it means, what it feels like or how to do it.
Okay, we try. We tell them about other children in the world who don’t have anything, much less what they have. We may ask them to pick out some of the toys they don’t play with anymore to give to those children. We might explain that appreciating what you have makes you a happier person, or that it’s better to give than to receive. But, while these approaches are well-meaning, and may even be true, they usually don’t stick for very long. They may even cause a great deal of guilt or shame in the child, who suspects what you’re saying is true, but notices that, even so, they still feel envy or intense wanting, or anger about having to share.
From my own experience, gratitude is one of those things that sticks the best when not taught in a formal way, or as a zinging retort to a specific incident (ahem…like I did with my son). My kids can smell a “lesson” coming from a mile away, and go directly to fingers in ears, “la la la la…” mode. But real-time examples, stated from our own point of view, are much more relevant. For example, when Hurricane Sandy struck and the wind and rain was pelting the roof as I tucked the boys into their bunk beds, I said “I’m thinking about all the people in the world who don’t have a house, and how scary that must be. I’m thankful we’re safe and warm and dry.” Both boys were quiet for a long time, then said quietly, “me too.” Then they proceeded – unprompted – to add a few more gratitudes of their own, related to the storm. Since being more grateful is something I’m also working on myself, I take as many opportunities as possible to be grateful out loud, so the kids can hear me. It makes gratitude a household norm, instead of an abstract lesson.
At first thought, gratitude seems like something we do because it feels good and because morally it’s the right thing to do. But “mindfulness of gratitude” is more than just a fundamental underpinning of moral or religious philosophy. When we are able to genuinely identify experiences and interactions that make us feel grateful, and connect with that heartfelt sensation, it leads to a direct experience of being connected to life. And to the realization that our individual lives are unfolding within a framework that’s larger than our small selves. Robert Emmons, Psychology Professor at UC, Davis and author of a number of books on happiness and gratitude, writes, “Gratitude is the adhesive that binds members of society together. Reducing this virtue to a technique or strategy to improve one’s mood is to do it an injustice.” When we look at gratitude this way, as the glue that binds all beings together, it also becomes an antidote to loneliness, disconnection and a sense of not being enough, all emotions that seem to visit even the littlest kids from time to time.
The root of the word gratitude is gratia, which is also the root of the word grace. When we teach our children to embody gratitude in ways that are real and meaningful to them, we’re also showing them what it’s like to experience grace. Experience, not think about. When we practice mindfulness, we’re re-connecting the wires between the thinking mind and the heart/body system. Gratitude then moves from being a thought about something, to a felt sensation in the body, and that’s where the magic happens. But first we have to practice noticing, and then lingering in those sensations for a while, dwelling in gratitude for just a moment longer instead of flitting right off to the next thing. Now, when my kids express even the slightest bit of thankfulness for something, I say “That’s really nice, where do you notice that?” They’ve gotten pretty good over the years at recognizing they have a body sensation linked to that thought.
A while ago the kids and I made a box that sits in the kitchen, in which we can put notes to family members that fall under the categories of “compliments” and “gratitudes.” To my great surprise, guess who leaves the most notes, and also helps his four-year-old sister leave notes? Okay, sometimes her notes are in his handwriting thanking him for allowing her to step foot in his room, but you’ve got to start somewhere!