Give the Gift of Gratitude
For Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, how about a gift of gratitude? As a parent, I think teaching gratitude may be the best gift you can give your child. And, after all, he or she is the reason you are a parent so it’s a good day for gift giving. Here are my thoughts on teaching children to be grateful, even after they’ve left your home.
My daughter’s first year away at college didn’t turn out the way I imagined it. High school had been emotionally challenging for her so she eagerly embraced the opportunity for a fresh start on life. On move-in day I happily helped her set up her room. I hugged her goodbye and walked toward the door of her dorm room. I turned back to take one last look at her in her new home. I flashed back to my dorm room from freshman year and nostalgically noted how similar they were — the institutional furniture with touches of the childhood adornments of stuffed animals and tattered pieces of “blankies.” Even the posters on the wall hadn’t changed much. Ironically her roommate had hung the same Jimi Hendrix poster so many kids displayed when I left for college. I recalled how much I loved my college years and was thrilled for her but just a tad frightened as a parent who worries about the many things that could go wrong when a child tastes freedom from parents for the first time. I managed to hold back the tears until I was safely in my car where no one could see me getting all misty. I was reminded of watching her climb those big school bus steps on the first day of kindergarten. But, much like on that day, I felt pretty good about her ability to take on the world. She was smart, sensitive, and compassionate. I felt confident in her ability to proactively shape her life in a way that would make her happy.
During those first few weeks when we spoke on the phone she sounded pretty happy, just the way I thought a college freshman should sound. Her voice had that perfect balance of excitement, curiosity, and cautious optimism, with maybe a bit of giddy between the lines. Her classes were inspirational, she was making friends and learning to balance school and fun. But over time that touch of giddy quietly disappeared and the cautious optimism was beginning to lean toward pessimism.
She was doing fine academically but struggling personally and suffering some significant physical challenges. With those came emotional issues that were heartbreaking to hear about. Each conversation was a bit worse than the one before. My formerly positive-thinking child was turning toward a dark side. I worried the darkness would become more pervasive than the light in her life. My fears grew and sadness crept in. This was not the way I hoped her fresh start would turn out.
I searched for ways to help her with the physical struggles. I researched online to learn about what she was describing in order to find a doctor to help her but in the meantime I wanted a more immediate fix, something to help her get through each day without being despondent. When we spoke I would try to turn the conversation to something positive for her to think about. I reminded her of goodness in her life. But I realized this was not something I could effectively do for her — to make her turn her mind toward the light. This was something she had to do for herself. But I could facilitate that.
So, I suggested a nightly ritual. Just before bed, the last thing each of us would do was to email or text the other a list of three things for which we were grateful. There was no item too small or too trivial or too big or too corny to consider. The goal was simple — at the end of each day we would take the time to identify three things worth noting for their goodness. We agreed not to be judgmental about each other’s list. It could be anything from “My oatmeal at breakfast was especially delicious,” to “My best friend called just to say hi,” to “I got an A- on an English paper I worked hard on,” or “My project at work is finally finished.” One day it might be, “Saw a gorgeous sunset,” and on that same day it could include, “Passed a homeless person sleeping on the street and thought about how fortunate we are to have a safe place to sleep.” One day in February it might be “I saw my first crocus,” or “so happy to have sisters.”
The only thing that mattered was that we did it every day. In this daily routine one thing became clear. In each day, from the gloomiest to the most resplendent, there are a myriad of things for which anyone can be grateful … if we seek them out. Some days the list of three poured forth freely while other days it was a stretch to find three. (Hence the day of the oatmeal gratitude.) But find three we did, each of us, every single day.
I launched this routine to help my daughter but, as so much of parenting turns out, I learned valuable lessons too. I found myself looking forward to making the daily list. Throughout the day I’d make a mental note of small things, random acts of gratitude so to speak, in order to remember them later. It’s surprising how many I could find some days. Although we agreed on three, occasionally I’d throw in a bonus item, just because it was that kind of day.
Ultimately we did find the answer to the mystery of my daughter’s physical struggles and she is well and happy and healthy now. We didn’t continue our nightly list together, we had both found our way back to a place with more light than dark.
But I didn’t stop making the list. I found it so uplifting and so soothing as a way to wrap up each day I just do it in solitude, like a nocturnal meditation. Every night as I place my head on the pillow and close my eyes I make a mental list of three things for which I am thankful. I’m a fortunate person so most days I can easily recall at least three involving my husband, my kids, my grandson, or my friends. But some days are difficult or sadder so on those days there might be an item on the list about delicious oatmeal. Still I’ve not yet faced a night where I can’t come up with three. That trio of gratitude makes the finale of every day peaceful. For that I am deeply grateful.