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How to Be Grateful

Children parrot their parents in every way—so if you want your kids to feel and express gratitude more frequently, you have to do that yourself

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I worry about raising entitled, bratty, ungrateful little weasels. Children are born self-absorbed, for good reason: Selfishness increases one’s odds of living past toddlerhood. It’s why babies see the world as one big extension of self: If they worried about mama’s emotional state instead of their own desire for a tipple or a diaper change, they wouldn’t get their needs met. Evolution is delightfully efficient. But as children age, they start figuring out that they and their parents are different entities. That’s where separation anxiety comes in. Empathy develops as toddlers and preschoolers start to understand that people can be mean, that behavior has consequences, that their own actions have an impact on other people. Kids develop gratitude.

Gratitude isn’t just a civilizing influence that prevents us all from being overgrown babies; it also makes us happier. Psychologist Robert Emmons, at the University of California, Davis, who studies gratitude, has shown that it improves health, resilience, and emotional well-being. But it doesn’t grow in a vacuum. It’s our job as parents to make sure our kids develop social awareness and menschlikheit. But like many parents, I think I could be doing a lot better. So, on the eve of Thanksgiving, I’m pondering ways to step up my thankfulness training. Learn from my screw-ups:

I’m not religious about modeling the behavior I want to see.

I’m pretty good at saying “thank you” to the guy at the pharmacy. I’m not so good at expressing appreciation closer to home. A few years ago, I read an article about how spouses should say thank you regularly for the everyday tasks of family life. If your partner makes a delicious dinner, works late to bring home the fakon, or takes the kids to the asthma specialist, you’re supposed to say, “Thank you for supporting our family.” The cheesiness of this phrase made Jonathan, my husband, and me giggle, but for a few months we did it, and you know what? Hearing it feels really good, especially when paired with Meaningful Eye Contact. Kids should see their parents expressing appreciation. My own kids are good at the automatic “please” and “thank you,” but because I don’t often enough consider the big-picture “do I appreciate all I’ve got?” they don’t either.

Jeffrey Froh, a professor of psychology at Hofstra University, did a study in which he asked a group of middle-schoolers to keep “gratitude journals” for two weeks. The kids wrote down a few things they were grateful for every day. A second group of kids wrote down the day’s petty annoyances, and a third group did neither. The students who were made to think about what they had to be grateful for experienced a surge in optimism and a decrease in negative feelings.

Maybe I could suggest we talk about What I Have to Be Grateful for Today at the dinner table instead of playing Two Truths and a Lie (which I must ungratefully admit I’m utterly bored with) every time the conversation lulls.

I’m not being consistent with chores and allowances.

The kids are supposed to get their allowance and tzedakah money on Friday afternoons before Shabbat. I usually forget. This means that every time the kids want something—a giant gumball, a Webkinz—they start wheedling and calculating how many weeks allowance I owe them. Their pleading little voices make me want to stab myself with a fork. Josie is supposed to feed the cats in the morning, and Maxie is supposed to feed the fish in the afternoon, but they often forget, and I’m perpetually noodging them until my own voice makes me want to stab myself again with that fork. We need a simple, regularly implemented system: This is what you do as a member of this family. If I have to remind you, or if you don’t do it, your allowance gets docked. If you want something, you use your own money from your piggy bank, save up, or wait to see if you still want it when your birthday rolls around. I want to increase their list of tasks, too—we should have family dinner more often for all the usual reasons but also because I want the girls regularly setting and clearing the table. It’s not rocket science: Having to work for stuff makes you more grateful for the stuff you have.

I place too much emphasis on getting, not enough on giving.

It would be simply divine if Jews and Christians alike didn’t make December a month of gifting. Christmas is about Jesus’ birth; turning it into a celebration of nebulous merriment and wrapping paper is irksome. Hannukah is a minor holiday about the rededication of the holy temple and the tension between traditional and acculturated Jews. In my own tradition of hoping technology will solve all my parenting problems, I have allowed the girls to maintain their own Amazon wishlists, which they endlessly groom like My Little Ponies. They understand that putting things on a wishlist doesn’t mean they’re going to get anything on that list; it’s fantasy shopping, like fantasy baseball. I am draconian about the need for thank-you notes, but I need to work harder on getting the kids involved in gift purchasing for others. They also could be more involved in choosing how and where we donate money in honor of other people.

I fail to seek out gratitude and tolerance stories.

The book Molly’s Pilgrim is about a little girl who has recently emigrated from an Eastern European shtetl to the American Midwest, where her classmates mock her clothing and accent. As a Thanksgiving homework project, Molly’s teacher assigns her the task of making a pilgrim doll. When Molly explains to her baffled mother that a pilgrim is someone who leaves his or her old country in search of freedom and tolerance, her mother surprises her with a gorgeously made doll that looks like mama herself, not like a black-dress-and-buckle-shoe-wearing Puritan. At first the kids sneer, but Molly’s teacher sets them straight. Leaving aside a moral lesson today’s hyper-meddly parents should not be learning—when your child fails to do her homework, do it for her!—Molly’s Pilgrim is a great way to talk about how the values of Judaism and Thanksgiving intersect, and how lucky we are to live in a time when the people who are nastiest to American Jews are usually other Jews. I should make reading Molly’s Pilgrim—honestly, one of the best Jewish children’s books of all time—an annual tradition, like making hand turkeys and nutter-butter gobbler cupcakes. Thanksgiving is the perfect time to discuss the Jewish value of hakarat ha’tov, recognizing the good in our lives, and drawing parallels between books and news stories and our own privileged lives is something we should do far more often.

There’s never enough shehechiyanu.

Yes, we say the prayer for new and wonderful experiences on big occasions. But we could say it all the time. There are so many things to be thrilled by and grateful for. Last weekend my beautiful cousin Misha got married, and my Uncle Michael’s toast was a simple distillation of the prayer: “Dear Lord: Thank you for the gift of being here now.” It was the perfect blend of ancient Jewish values and hippie zen. But Uncle Michael’s words made me realize: Why wait for weddings? Why wait for the first night of Hannukah? Because remember, to quote the great Jewish sage Buckaroo Banzai, no matter where you go, there you are. Opportunities for gratitude are all around us. I want my kids to see them.

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I’m off to put Molly’s Pilgrim on my Amazon wishlist, but first, one tip: one night of Hanukkah in my house is Give Your Sister a Present Night, for which I take each girl shopping for the other. They have picked out some kickass presents for each other in the past, and it’s almost never something the giver just wants to have in the house.

The question of tzedakah money has been nagging at me. You give separate money for tzedakah? Don’t you kind of think they should be giving it out of their regular cash flow? Me, I’m always scrambling around for some change before Hebrew school, and vowing to do it differently next week.

Great question, Renee. I guess it’s a matter of semantics — we give the girls allowance and part of it they keep and part goes into the tzedakah box. (And yes, I too scramble before Hebrew School, too.) When the tzedakah box at home is full, we decide as a family where to give the money. Josie gave extra donations from their own stash after the Haitian earthquake and the Japanese tsunami, the two natural disasters she’s old enough to remember. Josie and I have also done Kiva loans, where we each put up $25 of our own money and then see which charity repays the loan faster. (What can I say, competition adds a little excitement to giving.) But I don’t feel like tzedakah usually feels like THEIR MONEY, so we need to tie it more closely together. Your ideas on that front?

I LOVE LOVE LOVE the idea of “Give Your Sister a Present” Night. Totally chomping that. Thank you!!

thanks for this. definitely lots to think about. though we’re set on at least one thing: my eight-year-old says shehecheyanu eagerly and often, whenever he’s excited about getting to do something new.

Aw, Hope. The best! And the sweetest!

Therry Neilsen-Steinhardt says:

One of the things I am consistently grateful for is Marjorie Ingalls’ writing for the Tablet. Thank you for this piece.

Wow. This is actually inspirational to me.

So true, and so important. With teens in the house, there is little gratitude on either side of the table. It has to be worked at, again and again.

Somehow they do get the lesson that giving is at least as much fun as getting: my 13 year old LOVES getting her brothers presents, and plans them out well before Hannukka and birthdays.
And this article is so timely for me: my 7 year old is doing his Molly’s Pilgrim project right now in 2nd grade: you must interview and write a report on an immigrant you know, and make a pilgrim doll of a member of your family (seperate from the first person) who came to the U.S.
This is my third time around for “steering” this project, and I’ve yet to read the book! Now it’s a must for me!

Christopher Orev says:

Thanks for this pre-Thanksgiving reflection.

My daily prayer practice is, above all, a practice of gratitude, and I regularly recite the Shehecheyanu blessing when I feel particularly moved by some sight or experience. Once, when I mentioned to a rabbi that I recite the blessing at least a few times each week, he looked surprised. “You’re having new experiences that often?,” he asked, a little skeptically. “Well, yes, at least in the sense that I feel profound gratitude for being alive in that particular moment.” He raised his eyebrows, nodded, and seemed satisfied (or maybe he thought I was loopy).

I fail on many of the same tasks, although I do have my kids pick out gifts for others, wrap them, and write the accompany note (as well as thank you notes when they receive a gift).

You might also like the book Rivka’s First Thanksgiving. It’s about a girl on the LES in the early 1900s who challenges the rabbis when they say Thanksgiving is only a holiday for the Gentiles… and she wins!It would pair nicely with Molly’s Pilgrim.

I just checked out Molly’s Pilgrim on Amazon. Is it by the same Barbara Cohen who wrote one of my favorite Jewish children’s books of all time, The Carp in the Bathtub?

Aussie: Indeed it is!

This is what I do re: noting the good: http://moonfrye.com/profiles/blogs/moonfrye-family-three-good-things-by-sarah-buttenwieser
I am determined to work harder on the chores/giving back part; last night, my attempts were met with meltdowns. Long road, living the way we aspire to!

I am crossing my fingers for you.

Steve Stein says:

There’s a lot of truth here. After having raised a couple of kids (now in their 20s) one thing I can say – modeling politeness and thankfulness really does work.

There are a lot of shehechiyanu moments – make sure to mark them. It feels so good!

Sarah, your “Tell me 3 Good Things” is a GREAT suggestion. We’ll totally try it. Thanks!

Thank you! The story about Itzhak Perlman (from the essay on hakarat ha’tov you linked to) will make for a very nice reading at the Thanksgiving table.

I’m grateful for your lovely writing, your informative links, and your thoughtful book recommendations.

Have a wonderful holiday!

“I want the girls regularly setting and clearing the table”

I’m assuming that you only have daughters. Otherwise, the comment above sounds a little sexist. I’m a boy, and growing up was regularly expected to set and clear the table, and help prepare foods in the kitchen.

Marjorie. If you want the tzedakah money to feel like “their money” why are you deciding “as a family” where to donate it? Why not let them decide all on their own. Do they want to support animals at a shelter? Hurricane victims? Sick kids? The local senior center?

Every Friday night (and at thanksgiving as well), we go around the table and each say a thing we are thankful for. It’s a nice practice in gratitude — both for the big things and for our family.

shmuel says:

My son didn’t have a full education but he dorn wellknows all about life and sensitivity and graditude and respect for others he is a very cautous carfull not to make a mistake not to affend people he is aquiet shy young man he is in his high 30′s he looks younger they have better schooling than when he went to school he has a computer loves to draw and plays music by notes and ear, He composed a song withhis own words and sank it on the computer he writes poams also i would like if it’s all possible to please help this young man get started in life for a parnaser job and he would like very much to learn torah with a partner I know t6his is a big world with so many people in it but i try hard to find for him and it just doesn’t go. He is a smart and kean young man he also would like to find his barshater [future wife]. {{H} Willing} Hope you read your email yourself. I realize your very busy and who am i to ask for your help I am only a mother whos appealing to you for help for my son I love the way you write such heart felt words it makes me feel so good to hear beautiful things in this world This world has lack of feeling for one an other to see such beautiful things that you write that in it self is amazing. Be well and lots of luck to you the {ALMIGHTY} should give you abundance of health and happiness through out your life time. {AMAN} With lots of Gratitude Chaya

Ben: Yes, I only have girls!

After teaching Hebrew for a few years to economically privileged kids, I was all prepared to say, Amen, ungrateful weasels. But I’m guilty of not remembering to be thankful as well. Thank you for reminding me of Wendy Kanter, the wife of one of our rabbis, z”l, who used to say a Shehechiyanu several times a day… every moment was new to her, and she was grateful for them all.

This piece resonates with me in so many ways. We have shabbat blessings every week, and we go around the table and everyone has to say one thing they are grateful for. Sometimes it’s silly, sometimes it’s big, sometimes it’s small. My teenager has turned this into a fine art of finding something esoteric and obscure to see our reaction. My 10 and 12 year olds see it as a chance to think about the fun things that have happened or that they anticipate.

I also struggled with the allowance issue for years – I finally decided that monthly procurement would work better than weekly, and it does!! I put it in my calendar on the 1st of the month, and I always remember, and if I don’t, they do!

And finally, the whole Hanukah quandary. I do admit to being an 8 night Hanukah celebrator, and take great pleasure in both finding nice things for my kids and getting big things they need (like winter coats)with a different theme every night. (music night, book night, etc.) But one night is now Tzedakah night, when we exchange no gifts and set up a community service project instead, and each kid puts their own money into a tzedakah box (which we then match) and everyone makes recommendations as to how to split it up and what to support. And one night is sibling night, where they each get or make a present (under $10) for their other two sibs. It takes a long time to figure these things out, and just when you think you have one under control, another issue crops up. Thanks for a great, thought-provoking piece.

I love this piece. I once overheard my friend’s partner saying “Thank you” for having made a cappuccino. It struck me as ludicrously overdone, a violation of the idea that family members don’t need to say thank you just like they don’t need to say, “I love you”. They should show it. But expressing gratitude, when you mean it, really has a powerful effect. The Hofstra study is a great one. I have found my whole work day 100 times more productive when I come from a place of gratitude (I’m lucky to have this work, I’m lucky to have nice music to listen to, I’m lucky not to be in an office anymore) rather than anxiety and irritation (I have so much to do! My printer never works! The construction outside is driving me crazy).
I love the traditions you suggest. My 3 y/o heard in school that this is a gift-giving time of year, which I’m kind of disappointed about (we’d hidden it so far), but hopefully I can spin it to giving others…lots of great opportunities this time of year. My sister and I both recently started including our kids in decisions about donations. Thanks for this beautiful piece. Never heard of Tablet but will be a regular reader now!

Oh, one more thing — I so appreciate you raising the point about Hanukah being a minor holiday! People look at me like I have two heads when I tell them this. Similar bafflement when I tell them there are only 13 million Jews in the world, a little less than half of them in Israel. “But you guys are EVERYWHERE.” hmmph. Never quite sits well with me, but maybe they mean it as a compliment.

Roslyn Frankl says:

Re teaching children to count their blessings, I think teaching them the bruchas and saying them together would go a long way. And it’s Jewish!

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How to Be Grateful

Children parrot their parents in every way—so if you want your kids to feel and express gratitude more frequently, you have to do that yourself

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