Gratitude ~ The state of being grateful. To be grateful – expressing or giving thanks.

Maybe it’s old age creeping up on me, or perhaps my family and I have lived in the country for too long, that made christmas shopping almost unbearable this year. I heard myself muttering things that I remember my dad would say. “Oh for goodness sake why are there so many people?”  “Oh my god, why are you moving so slow?”, “I hate christmas time”, PARKING oh the PARKING. I love christmas but christmas shopping just made me grumpy this day. Several reasons why,  but I left this particular shopping expedition feeling exasperated. The personalised Santa bags, unique handcrafted ornaments, gingerbread houses, ice-skating rink for the kids that you almost need to take out a small loan to afford. It was overwhelming. We all want to make christmas magical for our kids. So I found myself wondering how do you really achieve the magic of christmas without buying into the idea that we need more. Do I need this? Will my children feel they have missed out if we don’t have all these things? Alongside the perfect tree and pinterest worthy advent calendar?

One thing that seems to be on many people’s minds around this time of year is gratitude, giving thanks. We try to balance the demonstrous amount of consumption with some giving and remind ourselves of what we are thankful for. This seems an incredibly pertinent lesson to pass onto our consumer driven offspring,right? How does one teach gratitude? Why are kids so spoilt? How can we teach them to be grateful for what they have?

If you look at the word gratitude in the dictionary it says ‘the state of being grateful’, to be grateful is ‘feeling or expressing thanks’.

When I hear talk about children and gratitude, most usually refer to children appreciating what they have and saying thank you when a gift is received.  God forbid your child opens up a gift that he or she didn’t really want and expresses disappointment. I am sure many of us have been there. The moment you want to shrink into your oversized christmas jumper and tell yourself Aunty Mary didn’t notice. If you happen to live in the southern hemisphere you will be more than likely NOT wearing a jumper in which case you can blame their ‘bad behaviour’ on those evil selection stockings they ate before, during, and after their breakfast.  I will never forget the year that I so desperately wanted a kitten and the sudden devastation at finding out on christmas morning that I wasn’t the proud owner of my very own little fuzzball. Not only that, was the shame I felt for expressing such sadness. I remember the months leading up to christmas planting the seed, hounding my parents daily about all the reasons why I had to have a kitten. The thing with christmas is, it is steeped in such traditions  as Santa and the naughty and nice list that i felt horribly betrayed. Hadn’t I done everything right? Shouldnt I get what I really want for christmas?

We are so conditioned to give with conditions, that sometimes even receiving  leaves us disappointed followed by a deep sense of shame.

It leaves me pondering, how can a child really feel the state of being grateful? How can we truly receive and be happy, how do we give without conditions?

Recently I was watching a documentary on Netflix about an Inmate rebellion in an American penitentiary. Basically the inmates were in uproar over mandatory TB testing which was against certain religious beliefs for a certain group of inmates. They felt their constitutional rights as human beings should still be upheld even though they were in prison. A hostage situation ensued and several inmates along with one prison guard was killed. During negotiations the inmates had their water supply cut off and various other things. This was in the protocol. To wear them down so that they would be more compliant.  It worked to a degree, the inmates surrendered and there was no further loss of life. It had me thinking of  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. If a human beings basic and fundamental needs are not met they have less motivation to focus on the next level of the pyramid. The pyramid starts with physiological needs, safety, then moves up to love /belonging, self esteem and finally self actualisation.  What has this all got to do with gratitude?

It occurred to me that sometimes we find ourselves in these similar hostile negotiations with our own children. They are fighting us for often the basic level things on the pyramid and we push back against them in further negotiations. See when someone is desperate they are more compliant. They are easy to control. This is why parenting techniques such as ‘time outs’ ‘reward charts’ thinking spots’ positive praise are hailed for being effective in curbing bad behaviour or reinforcing the ‘good stuff’.  It is because with all those things we hold the power over those hierarchy of needs. We control when a child receives our favour,our love and our approval. If your bad you will not get my attention, if your good I will praise you. Their motivation for those needs gets stronger, we can manipulate their will, they are more easily pliable, but what happens to those magic words at the top of the pyramid? Self esteem and self actualisation? We might hold the belief that in giving to our children  we must do so sparingly in order to stop them from behaving like ‘spoilt brats’ then they will be more grateful right? That if we give them our attention when they are clearly showing us they need it, then we reinforce that ‘negative behaviour’ so we ignore them, they initially fight hard by displaying even more negative behaviours, but over time they eventually learn that their needs will not be met unless he or she behaves in a way that the parent  finds acceptable. He learns that he is only going to get the love and attention of a parent when he changes himself. This is conditional love, it is the same with giving a child treats or presents depending on the behaviour of a child.

What I have noticed over the past year that giving generously from a place of love is what breeds gratitude. Not deprivation. Now when I say deprivation, most of you would argue that our children are far from deprived, you only need to turn on world news to see children without fresh drinking water and access to medical care and feel ridiculously guilty for your lavish entitled life. What I mean is the conditions we place on giving that deprives children whether it be our time or the things we give our children. You don’t have to go far to see, The naughty and nice list, elf on the shelf and several new crazes out there that come out every christmas as a way of manipulating children over the holiday season, and even well-meaning people over the holiday season who ask if your child has been good or bad.

I recently was stopped in a popular department store with my children in tow, to be asked by a Jovial santa if my children have been good this year, good enough to receive a small paper headband? I happily replied, they are never bad.. To which he joked “ah never bad, but do they listen all the time”? When  I said no,  he seemed pleased that I had confirmed that they were naughty after all. Sadly it’s everywhere. These traditions are normalised, it’s whats expected. Even the most magical parts of christmas are all about conditions and fear.

So over the course of the year we have done something different. There hasn’t been any threats of missing out if behaviour doesnt improve, “Santa is not watching you”. We have spent the year exploring our children’s loves and interests and being generous with our time and love, if they ask for something and its possible we try to get it for them, we discuss limitations if there are any and involve them in the budget. Sometimes we go without something so we can meet someones wish. Working this way rather than placing a condition on giving, opens them up to freely receive. There is no condition, they understand that we are on their side not the negotiator on the other side of the barbed fencing.

Gratitude is hard even for us as adults, a constant need for more and more to fulfill so much of the disconnection we feel from each other, our communities and the world around us. Getting gives us  momentary pleasure, but what we are really seeking is the closeness to others, the connection and contentment that no material possession can ever deliver. We fuel this conditioning even with ourselves, we justify all that we buy as a reward for our hard work, it helps for those who work day in day out jobs we dislike. It is not suprising we feel that our children are only entitled to rewards if they have truly earned it.  But can we really be grateful when giving is mindless, when its conditional, when we have replaced the love for people with the love for things? My answer is no, not really.

Everything we give should be of value, and the thing of most value is our love and time.

When love becomes conditional, when giving is based on whether a child has been naughty or nice. They learn that giving is associated with the love and approval of a parent. It’s a basic need on the pyramid that is now in the control of another and the child will fight hard for it, he becomes the ‘ungrateful kid’ who is never happy with what he has, he wants more, but he is not really fighting for gifts he is fighting for the very thing that comes with the gift, all wrapped with a ribbon on it.`5

So leaving the shopping centre that day, I stepped into my car and took a deep breath, my children have only asked for one thing this year, They have all asked for something they really want and every gift is a different price. Ordinarily I would race around balancing out each persons gifts so they all got the same amount so its fair. But really they are happy this year with the gifts they have asked for, they aren’t desperate to have the most amount of presents under the tree. They don’t need to have it all on one day, because they know if there is something they really need or desire that we will help them achieve it. This hasn’t spoiled them. What spoils them, is when I utter those words, “IF YOU DONT DO …… THEN I WONT”…… , What SPOILS them is when I give them a toy instead of my time, What SPOILS them is when they need me desperately and act in ways that I dislike and I scold them instead of being present, What SPOILS them is the harsh words I sometimes speak when they appear in my eyes ungrateful. LOVE DOES NOT SPOIL, our humanness does. We are all human and have so much past that we bring with us into parenting that sometimes we don’t realise what we do. But there is another way, that way I am learning too.

So what does it look like?

I notice that they express gratitude in so many ways beside an arbitrary thank you. My three-year old will just come up to me sometimes a day later and just hug me so sweetly and touch my face and plant the most gentle kiss on my face, and say “thanks mum for washing my snuggy” or giving me those cool army guys or whatever it is, or my 5 and 7-year-old will jump for joy days down the line over a cool game and say this is so awesome, “I’m so happy, Thanks so much mum”, or thanks for making me my favourite lunch, or cleaning my room. They arent forced to do chores but they are helpful and its genuine, and the more we show them this way of being with each other, the more they blossom. It isn’t an instantaneous thing, and they don’t always speak respectfully, they don’t always remember to say please and thank you, but then neither do I. We are human after all. I DONT ALWAYS  GET IT RIGHT, but my children are great at showing me when I have got it wrong. My heart and eyes are more open to seeing than they ever have before.

So not just at Christmas time…….

Be generous with more than just gifts this year, with kindness, grace, forgiveness, and love. Wrap those presents and chuck out the conditions, just give with an open heart. Let go of all that takes you away from connecting deeply with those you love, even if it’s something you have always done. Let gratitude grow from a true sense of being really connected and happy.

MeRrY ChRiStMaS!