True Gratitude—And Pearls from a Child

By Greg Baer M.D.

February 25, 2011

Recently my wife and I visited one of my daughters and her family. We enjoyed an afternoon at the park, picnicking, hiking, walking in the shallow water of the lake, throwing a football, and playing miniature golf. Toward the end of the day, Megan, age six, asked me if we could ride on the small train that circled the park. When I told her that we wouldn't have time, she said, "That's all right. We should think about what we have, not about what we don't have."

I was impressed with the wisdom beyond her years. In contrast to Megan's behavior, I have often witnessed the outrage of children whose demands—fired like bullets from a machine gun—are not immediately met. Parents are often intimidated by these fits of passion and respond by gratifying the demand.

As a result of this parental cowardice, a great many children come to believe that their every desire should be satisfied instantly and that any obstacle to such satisfaction is an unendurable tragedy. These children develop an astonishing sense of entitlement, they become increasingly demanding and spoiled, and they have no concept whatever of gratitude.

Many parents attempt to correct this selfishness by teaching their children to be grateful, but their approach is usually a combination of command and guilt. From the time children are quite young, when they are given any kind of gift, they hear the words, "Now, what do you say?" If the child doesn't quickly respond with the anticipated words, Thank you, the parents press more vigorously.

On a few occasions when I have seen parents engage in these moments of "education," I have asked them, "Why do you say that to your child?"

The parent--surprised to be asked such an obvious question--invariably responds with some variation of "To teach them to be grateful."

I then ask the parent, "When you say, 'Now, what do you say?' have you ever looked at the face and body language of your child?"

Rarely has any parent thought to do this, so I mimic the response of their child: I sigh, roll my eyes, shrug my shoulders, and speak with a reluctant tone of voice. Then I ask, "Considering these responses, would you say that your child is learning genuine gratitude?"

Most parents have never considered the effect of their lessons. Genuine gratitude--which is simply a clear recognition of what we have--cannot be taught by command.

Can gratitude be taught? Of course. We teach it when we point out to our children the good things they enjoy in their lives, simultaneously teaching them that when we remember these gifts—when we are grateful—we can be happy even though we may have many desires that are unfulfilled, some of which will never be fulfilled.

On many occasions Megan's mother, Rachel, had taught her to consider and appreciate the positive things in her life. She taught these lessons regularly, not related to Megan's receiving any particular gift, so Megan learned to be grateful as a way of life, unconnected to whether she was getting what she wanted in any given moment. Rachel taught Megan that being grateful was not a falsely inflated positive attitude, but was simply telling the truth about the many privileges and gifts she often enjoyed. She also taught her that happiness was a result of gratitude FOR the gifts in her life, rather than a result of gratitude TO any particular person who gave the gift.

As we are forced to be grateful TO a given person, we don't learn gratitude, only a sense of obligation and social exchange, which we commonly grow to resent. Children who are required to express gratitude will often comply—just to please those in authority, or to avoid their disapproval—but in time they feel controlled and victimized, and then they become increasingly unhappy and ungrateful.

Many of us complain often about what we don't have, or about what someone has done to us. When we have learned genuine gratitude, however—of the kind illustrated by Megan—we carry with us a ready reserve of peace and happiness.

Gratitude multiplies our enjoyment of any gift, and then if we fail to receive something we had hoped for—or if someone inconveniences us or deprives us of something we desired—we are not devastated. With gratitude we easily recall our reservoir of gifts and love and happiness, and any potential inconvenience or deprivation becomes relatively insignificant.

Gratitude is the perspective of truth and wisdom. It is the fruit of deliberate consideration. And when we have gained this virtue, it becomes an anchor to the soul, giving us stability and peace while others are buffeted and tossed by the waves of life's inevitable ups and downs.

Happy are those who learn—who choose—to be grateful.


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About the author 

Greg Baer, M.D.

I am the founder of The Real Love® Company, Inc, a non-profit organization. Following the sale of my successful ophthalmology practice I have dedicated the past 25 years to teaching people a remarkable process that replaces all of life's "crazy" with peace, confidence and meaning in various aspects of their personal lives, including parenting, marriages, the workplace and more.

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