I was listening to an On Being podcast this morning entitled “Inside the Mormon Faith”. Mormon scholar Robert Millet was discussing various tenets of Mormonism, and what I found most interesting was his explanation of the belief of reincarnation in his faith. Millet, himself a father of six children, stated that as a Mormon, he has approached parenthood in a slightly different way from the way most non-Mormon parents do. Whereas many religions view the birth of a child as nascent creation—a blank slate to be moulded by the parents, Mormons profess that a child is born into a family having an already formed personality from a pre-birth existence. In essence, it really turns that whole “nature versus nurture” on its head. As parents, we are more akin to caretakers or shepherds than to shapers of personality.
I found this belief not just thought-provoking but humbling. There has been a lot of discussion around our house recently about how as parents we can foster a sense of gratitude, or appreciation, in our children. Talk to any parent of a teenager and the conversation invariably touches on how teenagers today are self-absorbed and think that the world revolves around them. As a parent of a young adult, my wife and I often feel that we have somehow “failed” as parents because we are not witnessing a sense of gratitude in someone we raised. Intuitively I know that this is a universal concern of parents around the world, but I still can’t help but feel that we’re the only ones dealing with this.
As a parent, your primary concern is that your child is healthy and safe, but beyond that, there are certain values that you hope to instil in your child. One of the parenting traps that many of us fall into is to prioritize the feeling of self-confidence in our children; however, it quite often comes at the cost of a child’s expression of gratitude and appreciation. Despite our best intentions, we as parents might be doing a disservice to our children in that people who grow up with a low “gratitude quotient” tend to experience more issues related to addiction, be under more stress as adults, and are more inclined to be socially isolated, all of which have a detrimental effect on a person’s well-being.
So, if gratitude is so important to future livelihood and emotional development, how can we nurture this quality in our children? The more I read about this issue, the more I understand why our “coercive strategies” to make our children more “grateful” can end up backfiring. Most of the literature from child psychology identifies four common problems. (1) The “or else” strategy. This really comes down to a thinly veiled threat whereby parents warn their children of negative repercussions by saying things like, “You better write a thank you letter to your grandmother, or else you might not get a present next year.” (2) The “grass is always greener” strategy. Every parent is guilty of this at some point when we say, “Why can’t you be like Emily, she’s always so polite and appreciative.” (3) The “great scales of indebtedness” strategy. Have you ever caught yourself saying something like, “I just drove all of your friends to the mall and gave you some spending money, the least you can do is say thank-you.”? (4) The “bribing” strategy. This is the one I’m most guilty of, where I attempt to literally “buy” appreciation when in fact, all I’m doing is attempting to manipulate someone into being grateful.
Is it even realistic to expect that our children openly express “gratitude” while living in a society that tends to reward individualism at the expense of the community? Even the technology today, like smartphones and iPods, allows us to travel around in our own little bubble where we think we are each the centre of our own universe. Instead of endlessly complaining about this, I decided to work on a concrete solution rather than be stuck in the problem. As a means of addressing this issue in my life, I’ve drafted a few strategies to bring gratitude back into our family life. (1) “Be a role model of gratitude”. This all boils down to “do as I do” and not “do as I say”. Simply things like writing thank-you notes, taking time to show my appreciation when someone goes that extra mile for me, and treating my partner with the respect and appreciation she deserves, will go a long way to setting the example of the behaviour I’d like to see reflected back. (2) “Take the focus away from consumerism-based rewards”. It’s time to bring back the value of “time spent together” as something to be cherished rather than always trying to “buy appreciation”. (3) “Practical age-appropriate participation”. I think we can all agree that we tend to value something easily received less than something that we work harder to achieve. I read a great article on the Today’s Parent website about how as parents, we should be fostering gratitude in our children by involving them more in our interactions. For instance, we can expect that younger children help tidy-up after dinner, teenagers babysit a younger sibling without expecting to be paid, and our older children, who may have moved out of the family home, to bring over their contribution to the meal when they come back home for Sunday dinner. I really feel like I’m in uncharted water here, and I’d love to hear back from all you parents about what has and hasn’t worked in your families.