My three-year-old recently (and tearfully) informed my husband and I that we were lousy parents. This was on a cross-country trip in which we visited an aquarium, beaches, mountains, and lakes; in which we stayed in hotels, ate at restaurants, played with friends and relatives, and generally had a splendid time (and spent a lot of money). Of course, all of this activity tired out our kids–hence the negative review of our parenting skills. He was later kind enough to retract his comment.
Ah, gratitude. This is one of the crucial skills we try to impart to our children, for a life lived without gratitude is stunted, miserable, and dysfunctional. Love cannot exist without gratitude, and neither can friendship or enjoyment. We hope that the “Thank yous” we model and expect our children to produce, albeit insincerely, will one day help them develop a true sense of gratitude.
But children are not born grateful, and no one expects that they should be. A baby does not say “Thank you” when parents change his diaper, feed him, clean him, cuddle him, or play with him, and there’s something unbearably pathetic about young children who are grateful for every show of kindness. A happy child does not worry whether she will be fed and cared for, and so receives good things as no more than her due. Gratitude develops with empathy and with loss, or at least with awareness of the possibility of loss; a child who realizes that he has a nice life realizes that other children may not have loving parents, a good home, and the other blessings he possesses.
This is why it is a fool’s game to try to build a happy child by showering her with nice things and marvelous experiences. My husband and I give our children gifts and pleasures (see above regarding our recent trip), but we do not do so in the hope of keeping them happy; indeed, actively trying to ward off sadness, boredom, or other negative feelings is about as effective in developing happiness as sitting on a couch all day is in developing a strong body. A child sated with pleasures is a child who cannot easily be roused to wonder and delight, or to imagine that life for others may be different.
I have written before that children will remember and delight in unexpected things. This can be very annoying to adults who pay lots of money for a child to go to the aquarium, only to find that the slides inside the aquarium play area are what the child likes best. We could have done that for free, kid. But this reflects adult limitations quite as much as children’s; when they do not think like we expect them to, this is a failure in our empathy rather than a deficiency in their thinking. For ultimately, is the shining golden moment any less splendid because it is the memory of kicking plants or playing tag or any other “trivial” experience? Is an experience not important because of the meaning attached to that experience?
And this is where adults learn a little humility, and even something about gratitude, themselves. Even we who are evil give our children good gifts within our powers. When our children respond with happiness and gratitude, we are grateful. Every spontaneous “Thank you,” every manifestation of burgeoning gratitude inspires thankfulness in us. Little by little, we become more grateful people, and so, God willing, do our children.