Years ago, one of my darling brothers set out to see if he could reach the limits of gratitude from my kids. He’d always found it hilarious that they will express appreciation for small things. So when my Eldest was turning eight, he insisted that his wife wrap the lightbulbs for the Easy-Bake oven separate from the oven itself, just to see what would happen.
Eldest opened the lightbulbs first. She was delighted, and turned to her aunt to say, “Oh, thank you! These are great!”
My brother (who is a stinker) tried to prompt a controversy: “Don’t you think lightbulbs are a weird gift for a little kid?”
She rounded on him rather fiercely, defending her beloved Auntie.
“No! My aunt knew I would like to change my own lightbulb if it goes out. Now I don’t have to wait for Mom or Dad to do it! It’s a great present!”
When she opened the Easy-Bake oven a few packages later, my brother nearly wet himself laughing: Eldest’s eyes went huge, and she exclaimed, “OH WOW! I can use my new lightbulbs in my OVEN!”
He’ll still giggle if he thinks about it. He’s pretty sure my kids are entirely weird.
He’s likely right, but I don’t think gratitude for small things is a bad kind of weird.
I started thinking the other day, wondering how exactly we ended up with kids who do express appreciation for small gifts, and who don’t tend to get the Gimmees? After much consideration, I’ve narrowed it down, I think, to these:
We model it. My Tall, Dark, and Slightly Neanderthal Fellow performs a whole host of kindly deeds intended to make my life nicer. I notice them, and say thank you, and reciprocate with things I think he’ll enjoy. We do the same with our kids, and we talk a lot, pointing out when someone has done something for which we ought to be appreciative. When noticing such things, and being grateful for them, becomes a habit and part of the family culture, a child naturally learns to follow suit.
We don’t live with a “poor” attitude. Sure, we budget very frugally, and sometimes, we don’t have cash for a desired want. Our family culture emphasizes looking outside the box (and sometimes refuses to acknowledge the existence of any box at all.)
Rather than set up entitlement attitudes, we try very hard to have a do-it-ourselves attitude, and to develop patience as we save up for wanted adventures or belongings. When we do meet a want, it’s rarely with the “cheap” option. We save up for a middling-to-better quality item, and enjoy it for years.
We don’t create high-stakes expectations. When you think about it, setting up an environment of “this is going to be the Best Ever Day” is unrealistic. Things may go wrong. Gifts may break. Something may be the wrong color, or not the right size. A package may not arrive in time, after all. The cheesecake may crack, or the gravy might be thin. Someone might have a headache, or a touchy stomach. The batteries may not be fully charged. If everyone’s expectations have been set on perfection, it’s hard to be happy when things fall short.
So, we try very hard not to make birthdays or Christmas a high-stakes, Perfection or Nothing time. A big part of this is our habit of not waiting for Official Gift Giving Occasions to give gifts.
If I see a great price on a book I know a child has been wanting, it may become a “I’m glad you’re my child and it’s Wednesday” gift. Eldest sees some new paintbrushes she would like to have? How about a “Here’s to you and Fridays!” gift? Someone’s having a rough week? They may find flowers on their pillow, just because.
Birthdays may stretch out over a week or so, with small bits of celebration throughout. It might take us four days to open Christmas, because we stop and play with things as we go, with no pressure to finish quickly. Gifts do not become an all or nothing, life or death situation. Remove the frantic pace, and suddenly, gratitude becomes easier.
And, I just kind of have Awesome Offspring. Just saying.
How does your household rebel against an entitlement attitude, and work to develop gratitude as a basic part of family culture?