Photo by: Claireeyedesign

Teaching Gratitude

Photo by: Claireeyedesign

My child has had the luxury of having all of his material needs met beyond the basics. He has nice clothes and the latest toys and games. He has been privileged to travel to interesting vacation spots several times per year. He attends Science Camp in the summer, has had the opportunity to take cello lessons, guitar lessons, and a variety of other lessons. He has always been able to play a team sport if he decided he wanted to, and he has a very large blended family that has embraced him and his interests in every way. How can I teach a child who has been given everything to be grateful for what he has?

When I was small, I remember mom sitting me down at the table with a stack of thank you notes for everyone that had sent a Christmas or birthday gift. In an age of cheap phone calls, Skype, and e-mail, these little old fashioned thank you cards have fallen by the wayside. The last time I wrote thank you cards was after I got married. Instead, I have gotten into the habit of making a quick phone call or firing off a few sentences over e-mail to express my thanks to others. My 13 year old son needs to be reminded to do even that!

Here is a quick story that left me feeling like an inadequate parent. My mother, who lives 17 driving hours away sent my son a birthday card with a hefty little birthday check inside. I knew that a card had been sent and reminded him to call his grandmother to say thank you. Two weeks later my father called. He informed me, (in the slightly disappointed tone that I remember from living at home) that they hadn’t heard from my son and that they were wondering if he received their gift. My son is a wonderful, loving, caring young man. He is very sensitive to the feelings of others, but he had not considered the impact his lack of contact might have. My parents didn’t really need to be thanked for giving money, that wasn’t the point. The point was, they had demonstrated that they loved and remembered him on his birthday. They were trying to keep in contact even over such long distance to let him know that they missed and cared for him, and they were a little hurt that their actions were met with such seeming indifference.

I had my son sit down at the computer that very night and e-mail his grandparents a thank you, but I couldn’t help feeling like I had failed. In that motherhood moment, I became aware that I had managed to leave something very important out of what I had emphasized to my son. I began feeling like perhaps my child was a little too privileged. We are not a rich family, but my son has certainly never had to go without anything. How could I teach him to feel and express gratitude?

One thing I have emphasized to my students over the course of my time as a Career Coach is the power of the thank you card. When networking or interviewing, it is always vitally important to send a follow up note of thanks. I counsel my students not to e-mail. Instead, I teach them what my mother taught me, that taking a moment to actually put pen to paper, especially in an age of technology is valuable and a welcome surprise to the person who receives it. Many of my university students would not think of themselves as privileged, even though most of them drive nicer cars than I do, are always housed and fed, and attend a very expensive institution. Writing thank you cards is not something they mind doing, it’s just something they hadn’t considered before. When I explained that this was an important practice that was going to set them apart from the majority of job seekers out there, it was embraced as a tool for getting what they wanted. It was not initially related to really taking the time to do something nice for someone else by saying thank you. What a conundrum. The thank you cards were going out, but it was impossible to tell if the true spirit of the thank you card was really going with it. This was clearly an area of parental failure I was not alone in committing!

Two weeks ago, my mother sent my son another check for an early Valentines Day. There was also a gift card from one of my son’s friends that was a late Christmas gift. Inside her envelope she included a pre-addressed return envelope with his friend’s name on the outside. She couldn’t have made her point more clear. My son however, still didn’t seem to get it. I sat him down at the table and had him write out the card. No e-mail was permitted this time. I also sat with him and wrote a thank you card to another family member who had done something nice recently that I appreciated. We sealed up our envelopes and headed down to the post office. We stamped them and I handed them over to my son to do the mailbox honors.

I’ve decided that there is value in teaching gratitude but this practice must be modeled and facilitated often for the true meaning of it to really sink in. It needs to be more often than thank you’s after a job interview, or wedding. I know my son appreciates getting nice things in the mail. It is time to teach him to feel that appreciation even more fully by taking a bit of time to organize his thoughts, record them on paper, find a stamp, and walk out to the mailbox. A gratitude ritual. That’s what we need. The first attempt at it went well. The most common research states that it takes at least 21 days to form a new habit. Cheers to new beginnings. It’s never too late to incorporate active gratitude into a child’s life.

Catharine is the proud mother of one fantastic 13 year old young man. She holds her Masters of Education in Quality Teaching Strategies and currently works as a Career Coach and resume consultant for a small liberal arts university. Read more at Bits and Bites

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