By Beth Proudfoot, LMFT
When I ask parents about their goals for their children, the most common answer is, “I just want them to be happy.” Ironically, the path to that goal of happy children is NOT to give them what they want. This is counter-intuitive, and many, if not most, parents fall into the trap of doing everything they can to make their children happy in the moment. This backfires, often in spectacular ways. Here is the truth which many parents find out the hard way: the more you give children what they want, the more unhappy they become. The old-fashioned word for the unhappy child with everything was “spoiled,” the more popular term these days is “entitled.” The hallmark of either is a pervasive lack of gratitude.
Few positive emotions have the power of gratitude, which can erase negative emotions instantly. It’s simply impossible to feel angry, sad, bored, jealous, or afraid and grateful at the same time. Gratitude is, in fact, the foundation of happiness because it can be consciously evoked, even in dire circumstances, and lead to a sense of positivity, calm and well-being.
The foundation of gratitude is its opposites: lack and loss. We become grateful for our health when we have experienced illness, grateful for our wealth when we have experienced poverty, grateful for our relationships when we have been lonely. True gratitude, at its core, is relief that in this moment we are not experiencing the many real negative experiences that absolutely could be coming our way at any time. Entitled people believe that nothing bad can happen to them. Grateful people believe that bad things can happen at any moment, deserved or undeserved, and it is only random chance, good fortune or grace which has spared them.
How do we give our children the gift of gratitude? We love them and feel deep empathy for their pain, so it’s very difficult, but the long-term solution is to allow them to experience lack and loss, boredom and loneliness, jealousy and frustration. This is not about locking them in a closet, it’s about saying no. No, they don’t get a new toy every time they visit Target. No, they don’t get to play on their iPad on every car ride. No, they can’t spend all day playing video games. No, you won’t talk to the teacher so they don’t have to experience the consequences for not turning in their homework.
Now, negative experiences alone will not automatically lead to gratitude. That path, though, is teachable. Naturally, in the course of everyday life, small disappointments happen in a child’s life. Someone at school is mean. They fall and scrape their knee. They fail on a test or lose a friendship because of their behavior. To teach gratitude, give them a hug, inwardly acknowledging that these setbacks will be good for them in the long run. And, when they’re all done expressing their real and deserved negative feelings, you can gently nudge them toward gratitude for the relationships they have, the things they’ve been able to accomplish, the positive experiences they have every day. Ahhhh….