With the holiday season behind us, many of us have been able to take a collective breath of relief as we leave behind late nights of shopping, wrapping, cooking, and planning. The holidays are usually a busy time, and I know most of us look forward to the fresh, blank page that starts on January 1st.
As my family worked to organize the leftover holiday chaos, I began to get more and more aggravated – as I do every year – at the amount of stuff we’ve collected over time. Add to that the bundle of toys that Santa dropped down the chimney, and my slightly obsessive personality was in overdrive. As I do several times during the year, I started issuing edicts to my kids to make piles of toys that should be donated, stat.
My son, who is ten and a kind soul, said to me, “Mom, it’s not that much stuff, we can fit it all.” I was stunned into silence. Not. That. Much. Stuff. Was he kidding me? It looked like a tornado blew through our house and only left toys behind.
I caught my breath, handed him a large donation bag to fill, and walked away silently. I was seething. Not at my son, but at myself. It was heartbreakingly clear to me in that moment that I failed as a parent to raise grateful children; to create little people who had perspective on how much they really had in this world.
I always thought I did a fairly good job of teaching my kids to say “thank you” and to be grateful for the things that others gave to them and did for them.
But I’ve learned over time that it’s not enough to say it. You have to mean it. And to mean it, you have to understand exactly what you are grateful for.
Later that day, I sat my son down for a heart to heart chat. I told him about the families I used to work with when I was an attorney with the NYC Department of Homeless Services. I described to him that some children are born into this world without even a place to go home to. He kept nodding. “I know, I know,” he repeated to me. He described everything he read in school about homelessness and poverty around the world. He understood the dichotomy of the world we lived in, at least intellectually.
So then why was he not grateful for everything he had? Not just the toys, but the roof over his head, the food on the table, the life where his biggest concern was getting his homework done on time? According to him, those other situations were not “real” – not having clean water, not being able to safely walk to school or practice your religion. He told me that he could understand them, but that it was hard to really know what it would be like to live that way.
And he was right.
It occurred to me that I myself didn’t understand the severe contradictions of wealth and poverty or empowerment and defeat until I actually witnessed them first-hand: until I walked through homeless shelters, until I spoke to moms trying to survive on a minimum wage while paying for childcare, until I saw the defeat in an adolescent’s eyes. I wonder now whether any of us can truly understand what it means to be grateful unless we actually experience poverty or defeat. The “idea” of someone having less than you is really not the same as actually experiencing not having enough money for food or rent.
While I do think that it is important to explain to our children why they should be grateful, I’ve come to believe we also have to show them. Beyond just packing up a donation bag, we need to take them to a food pantry or soup kitchen, and have them witness what others are going through.
Because that knowledge will lead to gratitude for what they have – and eventually fuel compassion for (and perhaps reverse) the inequality that runs through the tapestry of our human experience.
Only when our children are truly grateful for what they have – tangible and intangible – will they be able to shift their perspective to helping others achieve what they need. It’s a delicate balance, but one that is necessary, I think, for kids to learn true gratitude.
And so I’ve learned that it’s simply not enough to say “thank you” – true gratitude must be the catalyst for doing good, not only because we are grateful for what we have, but because we acknowledge that others deserve the chance to live that way, too.