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Grateful to Whom?
Raising Grateful Kids in a Meaningless World
The highest barrier to my kids saying “thank you” is the person they most often need to thank: their dad. At least for the small things. The bowl of cereal or the cup of water or the handful of strawberries. All the times I clean up their mess or pick up their toys or carried them upstairs at night. Their mom, too. But I have a hard time enforcing it. I don’t need my kids’ thanks. Maybe I don’t think I deserve it. Maybe I think it’s more trouble than it’s worth. Maybe I am too eager to please them or pretend I am a peer rather than a providing and demanding guardian. Or maybe it feels too much like a formality, like it is just words, somehow inauthentic.
I’m convinced it’s a generational phenomenon. Now, I don’t think of myself as a stereotypical Millennial. I got married and had kids relatively young. I own a house. I’ve been at the same job for my entire career. I hate social media. Praise and recognition make me uncomfortable. I don’t even like avocados. I consider myself fairly traditional, and have tried to push back against some of the more pernicious fads and follies of the day in how I live my life and how I raise my children, as documented on this blog. And yet, some generational tides will sweep you away with you even noticing.
Despite loving classical and family names, I named both my kids random things my wife and I liked the sound of. I don’t make my kids my kids say “ma’am” and “sir,” and neither do hardly any young parents I know. I worry about the loss of a legitimate, loving parental authority, and this simple gesture could be an easy way to reinforce it in the minds of my kids, but it just feels too weird. I’m someone who says “sir,” not a sir myself. I tell my kids friends to call me Dave, something that I would never, ever, in a million years, have done to my parents’ friends as a kid. And it has nothing to go with not wanting to feel old (I am) or trying to be hip (I’m not) or avoiding becoming like my dad (I wish I were). It’s simply the most natural, reasonable thing to do. You can try to swim against the current, but you can never get out of the water.
What’s strange is that I don’t act like it’s meaningless or outdated for myself. I was raised to always say please and thank you. I still say thank you to everyone who holds the door or passes me the ketchup or takes my order at the drive thru window. I still answer “yes, sir” when the teenage grocery store clerk asks whether I found everything I was looking for. I can’t help myself, but I wouldn’t stop even if I could. It’s a good habit. It’s a constant reminder of how much I rely on other people throughout the day and that I owe everyone, regardless of their position or mine, a wage of respect and appreciation. It’s a backstop against an otherwise all-too-easy selfish self-regard.
I want my kids to have the same respect and gratitude throughout their lives. I just find it hard to care about them being grateful to me. But I do want them to be grateful to their mother, and to their friends, and all the other countless people on whom they interact with and depend every day. What’s more, I want them to be grateful for those people. I want them to be grateful for me. I want them to be grateful for being alive, for each breath and heartbeat, for their minds and their talents and their passions, for the marvels of technology and the opportunity of America, for the joy of friendship and the comfort of family, for the warmth of the sun and the wonder of the rain and the majesty of the sky. But that’s a different question entirely. Who gave them all that? Who should they thank? Not me.
We all talk about being grateful for life and the many privileges and pleasures we currently enjoy, because we recognize it makes each of us a happier, humbler, more generous, more content, and better person. But how can our kids make any sense of this idea or begin to put it into practice? It’s missing an important piece. Be grateful for life? Okay, sure, no problem. Grateful to whom?
Gratitude requires a recipient. No one thanks the automatic door when it slides open. You don’t thank the self-checkout kiosk when it successfully scans your items or the card-reader when it accepts your payment. You can be thankful to the people who installed it (thank you, Aldi workers!), but there’s no point in thanking a machine that can only follow its programming. You can only be grateful for something if there was some possibility you might not have had it but, nevertheless, someone made a choice to give it to you. The waiter does not have to serve you—or serve you well—in the same way a microwave does. Your parent does have to play with you in the same sense as a Nintendo.
So who are you supposed to thank for being alive? Who’s responsible for allowing you to wake up in the morning? Who chose to bring up the sun? Who decided to make the flowers bloom or gave you the gift of snow? Who placed you (or your parents) in this country in this century? Who was in charge of ensuring you didn’t have a chromosomal disorder or that you were born with working legs? Fate? The universe? Random chance? Is it all just a roll of the dice, a lottery where some of us win big and all of us lose everything in the end? Is it the inevitable result of the mechanical processes of nature, the working out of a cosmic program, step-by-step, which just so happened to fill the world with wonder and beauty and you, at this exact moment, to enjoy it? Or is it something you create for yourself, the power of the human will wrestling success and extracting beauty from an otherwise uncaring chaos?
Maybe. But then how, exactly, can you feel thankful? Relieved, perhaps. Or lucky. Or guilty. Or cynical. Or hopeless. Or prideful. You can believe everything in random chance. You can believe it’s a predetermined fate. You can believe you worked for and earned it. None of those lead to gratitude. You can’t thank the dice or the computer or yourself. If you want to be thankful, if you want your kids to be thankful, for the good things in life, like the simple fact of having a father who loves them enough to provide the endless bowls of strawberries and goldfish and frosted flakes, you have to recognize them as gifts, willingly given, by a bountiful giver.
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