Do Kids Really Need to Be Thankful?

One of my favorite things at Brookfield Zoo is a sign in the Play Zoo. The sign shows a poster that a little girl drew which says, “Save the elephants, boycott Ivory soap.” The point of the sign is that good intentions often go awry when trying to teach kids about animal conservation.

A lot of educators believe in fact that you shouldn’t try to teach young kids about conservation and threats to animals. These problems are unsolvable for children. Rather than spur them to action, giving them too much info will spur them to depression and inaction. The better tactic is to teach kids to love animals and the Earth, and talk about the threats to it and how to save it later.

I wonder if we, as parents, need to take that approach to more things with kids. If you read a lot of mommy blogs you’ll see a lot of writing about ways to make your kids more grateful, especially this time of year. You often also see a lot of “my kids are so ungrateful I’m worried they’ll grow up to be brats.”

It makes sense. Almost by definition children of bloggers (mine included) are growing up in a privileged environment. Let’s face it, if your mom has the time, resources, and social approval to write a blog, you’re a lot better off than most of the kids in the world. (Before you write to complain, fine, I’m sure somewhere there is a single mom who works a full time minimum wage job and gets up at 6 am to go to the local library to work on her blog from a free computer before her kids need to get ready for school.)

We are all surrounded by STUFF and messages to BUY STUFF. On top of that, our modern parenting culture has us all doing so much for our kids. No one wants to raise a child with a sense of entitlement (or no one wants to admit that they want to raise a child with a sense of entitlement). But, I’ve seen so many examples of parents who expect way too much out of their kids in this way.

I believe that the Paris Hiltons and Lindsey Lohans of the world are the way they are not because of what they’re given, but because of what they’re denied. Safety, security, knowing you are loved, knowing that you are not alone in the world, that you are part of a larger community – when you have these things you can afford to be generous and giving. You can afford to think of others. When you lack them, you cannot.

Yes, kids need to learn the social language of gratitude. They need to learn to say “thank you,” but what if they just need to learn the language now so that they can learn the meaning later? If your kids aren’t being grateful enough is it truly that you aren’t forcing them to say “thank you” or showing them how much better they have it than others or is it because you want them to be thankful for things they don’t yet understand? Or perhaps, because what you want thanks for aren’t the things they truly want and need?

The book Nurtureshock discusses a study that shows that when middle school students were asked to keep a gratitude journal they had higher rates of depression. This was in direct opposition to adults whose moods improved when keeping a gratitude journal. Why? Because all those things for which kids are  grateful (their house, their possessions, food, etc), are all out of their control. These are things provided by the adults in their lives.

Adolescents yearn for autonomy and independence, asking them to spend a lot of time contemplating how in control of their happiness their parents are, is a recipe for depression. For little kids it’s simpler. They need a chance to learn that the world is beautiful before they can be properly appreciative of its beauty.

So, this Thanksgiving, sure go around the table and ask what everyone is thankful for. Model thankfulness and gratitude for your children, and ask them to think about it. Then be quiet and pass the mashed potatoes.

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