Guest Post by Beth Perkel from Light at the Beginning of the Tunnel
Note from Mara: I was thrilled with Beth approached me about writing a guest post for Kosher on a Budget, especially since, on a personal level, this is an issue my family is encountering more and more in our household. It is immensely frustrating to me, but after reading Beth’s post, I am excited and optimistic to start our Gratitude Project tonight!
Last year I got a proud phone call from my son’s first grade teacher. The class was given an assignment to write a letter to someone they wanted to thank, and my son had chosen his school bus driver. In his letter, he had thanked the driver for taking him home every day and driving carefully to keep him safe.
The teacher was so impressed by the unique choice of recipient and carefully thought-out gratitude that she took my son to the bus to deliver the letter even though this hadn’t been part of the assignment. It was a very moving experience for both my son and the driver, an aging gentile man who was rarely given attention by the children. He felt recognized and my son felt important for doing the recognizing. Both walked away, or more accurately drove away, happy.
The incident couldn’t have come at a more opportune juncture. My son had just reached the age where certain toys and items had been singled out exclusively as “cool” and he wanted more and more of them to bring to school. On top of this, he began to develop a mild case of “entitlement,” where he was confusing wanting things with needing things, and by extension felt he had an inalienable right to receive them.
The letter assignment provided an opportunity for reflection and appreciation that was the perfect segue to beginning a Project of Gratitude in our home that carefully navigated us away from drowning under the choppy waters of “the gimmes”.
In my blog Light at the Beginning of the Tunnel, I discuss many of the key foundational components to teaching our children happiness, as well as the impediments we are coming up against in modern society to achieving this goal. One major roadblock is the tide of materialism constantly crashing against us, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to keep our children from getting swept out to sea with always wanting more of “the latest and greatest thing”.
The problem is, as it aptly says in the Talmud, “No person leaves this world with half his desires fulfilled”, and therefore how are we to protect our children from the glass half empty versus glass half full syndrome? How can we make them happy that half of their desires have been fulfilled versus miserable that half their desires have not?
I believe the secret is by cultivating at home an environment of gratitude. We need an environment where our children learn not only to be happy with what they already have, but learn to tune in to all the wonderful mundane gifts of life they have become habituated to and therefore are now taking for granted as Lucky for us as Jews, gratitude is in our spiritual genes.
According to Rashi, our foremother Leah was the first to express gratitude to G-d for deliverance when she named her fourth son, Judah (which is a term of recognition and gratitude). Rabbi Tzadok HaKohen Rabinowitz explains that knowing there were four wives of Jacob and twelve foretold tribes, Leah had assumed that each wife would be given three sons. When her fourth one came she recognized that she had been given “more” than her fair share and expressed this gratitude in the choice of name for her son. From this name came the term for our very nation (“yehudim”-Jews), expressing a key component of our essence.
Other examples abound: We have biblical role models like King David who expressed his thanks to G-d continuously throughout Psalms despite terrible hardships and dangers (often within the very moments of them), and even nowadays one third of our daily prayers express gratitude.
But how do we unleash these latent strengths in our next generation? How do we cultivate this desired environment and teach our children to be happy with and appreciate what they already have? I suggest that a good first step is initiating gratitude diaries in our homes so that it becomes a daily exercise to reflect on the good things that have happened and been done to us.
Each child should have their own diary and be encouraged to list (or for younger kids the parents can transcribe) just a few things that they are thankful for. It can be as specific to that day as “I aced my test” and “my friend shared his favorite toy” or everyday\general as “G-d gave me a great family to love me and a body that works”, etc.
As children get older and the project progresses, encourage deeper reflections such as “I noticed this friend really went out of her way to include me” or “I noticed G-d has made me really talented in art or sports, etc.” Once they have gotten used to this, it’s also good to take the question of “what have others done for me today?” and add the question of “what have I done for others today?”
When compiled daily, the results are palpable. It is incredible to see the bounty of goodness that would otherwise have been forgotten. To use some examples from my own family, there was the time a car almost hit us but slammed on its brakes, there was the morning of terrible traffic where we were stuck bumper to bumper sure that we were going to miss our flight and managed to somehow still get there just in time, etc. It certainly gives a new meaning to I will give thanks to G-d with my whole heart; I will recount all of your wonderful deeds (Psalms 9:1).
At the end of the year, right before Rosh Hashshanah it is an incredibly powerful experience to hand each child their journal and have them read back over all the goodness that was done for them both by G-d and man, and that they have done for others that year as well. It also serves as a sharp tool to help pull a child out of the doldrums and give them perspective when they are going through a rough patch; children are prone to all or nothing thinking, so when they are having a bad day they suddenly think their whole life is bad! By showing them a compilation that they themselves have put together representing all kinds of good things in their lives it helps them remember how much good they have as well.
A next step is to periodically incorporate larger projects such as writing letters to people to whom we are thankful. Whether it be a parent, teacher, or friend (or bus driver for that matter), it’s a really meaningful exercise to have our children write a letter telling someone specifically just how much something that person did meant to them. At follow up assessments, studies have shown that people who write these letters report being happier one week and even one month later!
Other studies on gratitude show that participants in the gratitude conditions felt better about what they had in their life as a whole, were 25% happier, were keeping better care of their health and were more optimistic about the future than participants in other conditions in the studies. So don’t write those thank you cards for your children-make them do it!
Along with these projects comes developing a culture of gratitude in our homes in general. Being part of a family means helping out, but it does our children a disservice if we show them that everyday activities that are done for them or by them are not worthy of a “thank you”. When you thank your children for their help, believe me they will start noticing the countless everyday things you do for them and will hopefully thank you too!
Make sure they see you and your spouse thanking each other as well, and also see you thanking others out there in the world, whether it be a busboy at a restaurant or the worker in the store who showed you to the right aisle. Thankfulness begets thankfulness and soon the whole family will feel better about what they have.
As parents we have a lot to contend with in today’s society. Expectation, habituation, entitlement, materialism- I’m exhausted just be listing the challenges! We are hardwired for comparison.
Everything in life seems to bolster its meaning by its opposite. Happiness seems more robust because we have experienced sadness. Health feels more of a treasure after we have recovered from illness. And so, the reality of what we don’t have seems less concerning or annoying when we become accustomed to focusing on what we do have.
We instruct our children from a young age to start their day with Modeh Ani. With a little work, they can end their day in modeh ani mode as well.
Beth Perkel is a freelance writer that has been published in a whole host of publications ranging from Newsweek magazine and Chicken Soup for the Soul to The Jewish Press and Aish.com. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, she is a teacher, speaker, mediator, rebbetzin, writer and mother in Chicago, IL. Through her work, she is constantly delving deeper into the human psyche and working to help people improve their lives. Her current line of inquiry is teaching children happiness, and she regularly chronicles her thoughts in the blog Light at the Beginning of the Tunnel. You can connect with Beth on Twitter, and sign up to receive her posts on teaching children happiness, please sign up at this link.