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Happy Grateful Kids

Kathryn Thompson

A family vacation should be the one time of year when you can count on your kids to be happy and grateful and to enjoy themselves.  When you’re bouncing from fun activity to fun activity with family and friends in exotic locations like Montana and Utah, there should be nothing to complain about.  And I’m not just talking about verbal complaints.  I’m talking about passive-aggressive complaints, grunts of disapproval, eye rolls, and comments like, “Oh, I GUESS this flavor of yogurt will be okay.”

When mom has spent billions of hours planning, shopping, doing laundry, packing, and stocking the cooler with only the flavors of yogurt that you like best, it had better dang well be okay.  Real okay.  Not the okay that means, “Sigh!  This yogurt is such a staggering disappointment in my pathetic little vacation-taking life.”  And you should try saying thank you.  Because you’re thankful.

It seems a strange and self-serving thing to demand gratitude from your kids.  More than once I’ve felt a twinge of awkwardness as I’ve lectured Laylee and Magoo about showing me their appreciation.  We serve our kids because we love them, not because we’re searching for some sort of praise or reward.  But the truth is – showing gratitude rewards the person showing the gratitude even more than it benefits the one receiving it.

Ingratitude and selfishness make for pretty miserable kids.  Also people.  People and kids are both happier when they’re grateful and loving.  What I struggle with is how to teach my children to be grateful.  I can force them to say thank you but those two words don’t form a grateful heart.  Gratitude stems from humility, from a realization that you are not the center of the universe and that everything you have is a gift.

I don’t think this realization can be transmitted via lecture, although I don’t know that I’ll ever stop philosophizing to my kids about the merits of thankfulness.  I think it has to be learned organically, through experience and through daily, conscious modeling.  That’s where my effective teaching really happens, every day as Laylee and Magoo observe my attitude.  That scares me.  Like every other aspect of parenting, it’s a huge responsibility but it brings its own rewards.  When I’m working hard to be mindful of the messages my behavior sends, I become more grateful and always happier.  I’m also less of a jerk and people like me more which makes me even happier.

I have good, sweet kids but, like me, they have their punkish moments, moments where I can see them choosing to be miserable, often at moments when they have every reason to be happy.  It’s hard to watch but I know I do it too.  When they’re like this, I tell them to choose to be happy but maybe it would be more effective to have them write in a gratitude journal or count their blessings.  I could also take all of their belongings away and feed them on gruel and water until they were begging for that barely tolerable raspberry yogurt. 

Do you have any thoughts?  What do you do to help your kids become happy and grateful?