Why Do We Say Thank You?
Honestly, I don’t care whether my kids tell me thank you. I don’t need their gestures. It’s nothing to me whether they acknowledge my service in making their toast or bringing their water or cleaning up their mess. I don’t do it for their praise. It’s nice to be appreciated, of course, but I did everything for them long before they could speak, and I would do it even if they still couldn’t. So it truly makes no difference to me whether they say the words “thank you.” I make them do it anyway. Not for my sake, but for theirs.
What we want out of our kids is not to say “thank you” but to be thankful. The performance is meaningless. It’s the attitude that’s meaningful. The difference is that of getting a thank you card in the mail, which you discard in a moment, and the jumping, smiling, squealing, hugging excitement when they get just what they want for their birthday, which you remember forever. You can only wish your family would do that every time you washed the dishes or delivered a blanket to them on the couch (actually, it would probably get old pretty quick), because being genuinely grateful guards against discontent, reduces grumbling and complaints, makes you happier and more optimistic, inspires those you appreciate, and pushes you toward responsibility and service to others. Being grateful makes you better.
If you’re thankful for all the toys (or food or games or devices or whatever) you have, you won’t spend a lot of time worrying about the stuff you don’t have, though that will always be the majority of things. You can find always something to complain about if you’re looking for it, but the kid who’s thankful to be taken to a pizza place doesn’t complain that they don’t have any cheeseburgers. When you’re thankful to get a new job, it’s easy to overlook that one annoying coworker or the Friday-afternoon emails, but once you start thinking you deserve more, it’s hard to think about anything but all those irritations. Maybe you do deserve more, maybe you would prefer a cheeseburger, but you can pursue both while still being thankful to eat today. Complaining about it first will just make you miserable in the meantime.
One way to get more of what you want is to notice and appreciate it when people give it to you. Have you ever purposefully laughed at some dumb joke your kid told or some crazy trick they did, only to have them run around the house doing it nonstop for the next 3 days, telling everyone they meet? That works on everyone. If you notice and say thank you when your kid picks up her toys or gets her own food or helps her brother, the chances of them doing it again increase dramatically. But nothing shuts down good behavior faster than being ignored or even criticized. Yell at your kids enough times for making a mess while pouring their own cereal, and you’ll be preparing breakfast forever. Neglect to tell your wife thank you for making dinner or criticize her cooking a few times and just see whether you don’t end up with worse food and a bunch of other problems besides. But complimenting her food or her organization often will get you more meals and a cleaner house. Aren’t you more likely to mow the lawn or work out or style your hair if your wife notices and appreciates you for it? (Of course you are, I still have old shirts that I won’t throw away because some random stranger said it looked good 10 years ago). A little bit of gratitude and grace will multiply your blessings.
The natural response to those blessings is responsibility and service. To be grateful for anything is to recognize both its value and its undeservedness. Imagine the kid who receives a bowl of cereal and throws it across the room. Grateful? No, because he doesn’t care about the cereal and doesn’t recognize your service in bringing it to him. Likewise with the child who demands her breakfast and expects you to get it for her. She may value the food but doesn’t believe she is receiving anything beyond what she deserves. Gratitude requires both.
When you value something, you care for it. You don’t want to waste it. You want to make it last, to be the best it can be, whether it is food or toys or a house or a job or a marriage or a whole life. You can enjoy something you value, and you can improve something under your responsibility, but no one bothers to care for what they don’t appreciate. You throw it out and get a new one.
When you get something you don’t deserve, you incur a debt. If you earn it, then it’s not a gift, it’s entitled to you. But it’s not as though my kids are working hard to earn their snack delivery or their toys or their iPads. They are literally sitting on a couch. And I don’t make them pay me with their spare change or by cleaning the house or giving me a backrub. Considering all we’ve done for them as parents, it’s a not a debt they could ever repay, no matter how many chores they do. How do you repay the act of birth, the care and nursing as an infant, the constant love and devotion, all the time and pain and money and resources? You don’t. We don’t ask them to. It’s forgiven.
This realization can tear you up if you start to think about it, because it’s not fair. We have been given an immeasurable amount of gifts, not just from our own parents, but from the society we live in, the technology, the wealth, the education, and from life itself, our health and talents and opportunities, that not everyone has. Call it “privilege.” It’s what we got merely by existing in the present time and place. Why should we receive these gifts? We can’t possibly balance such an account. You can try to pretend you actually deserve them while others don’t, which makes you arrogant and cruel, or you can try to deny they exist, which makes you cynical and bitter. But if you are grateful for these gifts, your only option is to use them not for yourself. You can use your time and resources and talents in service of others, to bless them as you have been blessed, whether its the next generation, the people in your community, or your brothers and sisters. The genuinely grateful child helps around the house not because they are promised a reward but because they recognize how big a reward they have already received, just as the genuinely grateful parent serves their children without any thought of return.
We usually aren’t genuinely grateful, though. It’s hard. We feel the things we lack much more acutely than those we are used to having. Our accounting is infinite on the grievances and immediate on the rewards. Any job would be tougher to tolerate if they paid you everything up front and then you worked for years without additional pay. You’d soon forget about the lump sum and the debt of work you owe in the face of daily struggles. We need the regularity of a paycheck to keep our purpose front of mind. So I settle for making my kids say “thank you.” Lord knows it doesn’t make them grateful. But it’s a good reminder that they should be.