All through the year and especially as we approach Thanksgiving it is important that we help our children focus on what we have, to be thankful for rather than problems that exist in the world. Even though life is hard, even though the memories of 9-11 still haunt us, we are living in the land of the free and we need to be grateful for what we have. As children grow up the trait of gratitude for what they have is probably one of the most important traits they can acquire.
Happiness is a way of traveling, not a destination. The states of happiness, joy, peace, or stability are not possible if you want the world to be different then it is. Unless a child can learn to be thankful for what they have, they will lead a life that can only be described as miserable.
Let me illustrate. I visited a home a while back in which a small boy, gleaming from ear to ear, said, “Can I show you my new tackle box.” When I indicated that I was interested, he left the room returning with a rusty old tool box housing some lead shot and a few hooks. If the visible evidence of lack were not present in front of my eyes I would have thought that this box was jewel studded and contained the world’s most exclusive fishing gear. What was the major ingredient? It was gratitude. This child was thankful for what he had. He did not view himself as lacking anything. He was not comparing himself to anyone else. All he knew was that he had something that he could use to go fishing with his Dad and nothing else mattered.
This story should not imply that the challenge for parents is to keep their children ignorant so they will be grateful for what they have. Living in our affluent society, children will be exposed to the “things” of this world. Parents must make an effort to help their children be satisfied and even glad for what they do have, not to covet or desire things they do not have or cannot get. All religions teach that one of the things that the Lord expects of us is to be grateful for what we have. For our children’s happiness and psychological stability we need to help them gain this trait. How is this done?
Step number 1 - Be thankful for your children and be thankful yourself for the circumstances that you find yourself in. The Indian saying, “I complained because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet.” applies here.
Step number 2 – Do not indulge you children. Do not give them everything they want. Help them to work for what they get. We are always more appreciative of things we had to work for then for handouts.
Step 3 – Focus on the big picture. Teach you children that they are part of something bigger then themselves. When we recognize the needs of others, when we feel that we are all here for something more then selfish indulgence, it is easier to sacrifice and do without. We do this so others can benefit. We do this to learn, not possess.
Step 4 – Expose your children to the lives of people like Sister Teresa, Sir Thomas Moore, etc. Read them stories about individuals who never give up, people who would not allow circumstances to destroy their sense of happiness and well being. Let them know that it is not life’s circumstances that determine what we become but how we respond, grow, and learn in spite of the things we have or do not have. When I was young I wanted to play the piano. Someone told me my hands were too small. I thought that this must be the truth. Circumstances dictated my decision. My daughter was told that she could not play the flute because she had a “Widows Lip.” She was told her hands were also too small to play the piano. Thankfully she decided that playing these two instruments had more to do with her desire then her assets. She now plays both skillfully.
Step 5 – Emphasize the importance of character rather then achievement. We live in a land of achievers. But accomplishing things sometimes can mean that we must be better then others. We must compete. Teach your children it is better to go to bed being proud of how you have accomplished a task rather then proud of the accomplishment itself. When life is over, our possessions or our accomplishments matter little. It is what we have become that counts.
And finally – Enjoy life as it is. Recognize that this temporary existence we experience now was planed so that we could learn, grow, and be happy. I had a friend who, when he was a teenager, was injured in a car accident and, although he was prone to illness and confined to a wheelchair for 33 years, he learned to live each day thankful for being here on earth to experience life. His only regret was that he did not discover sooner to be grateful for God’s great love. When he learned to be grateful for his circumstances, be they as they were, he discovered happiness and meaning.
Another example of the same outlook on life is astronomer Stephen Hawkins. Although paralyzed in his early years he now feels that the same disease that robbed him of his ability to move also granted him the circumstances to think, ponder, and share his ideas about the universe.
It is important that we help our children learn to be thankful. The Thanksgiving holiday gives parents the regularly occurring opportunity to stress the importance of this trait as children grow and develop into adults.