A discussion about parenting and liberal religion, with Michelle Richards, author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting. | Welcome | Subscribe
@ Anthia Cumming/iStockphoto
Like many people on the social media website Facebook, I have been participating in the 30 Days of Gratitude project for the month of November. This has been a daunting challenge, as this month is always a difficult one for me.
The anniversary of the loss of two people who were very important in my life falls in November, and earlier this month, a friend I have known since elementary school passed away.
The skies are often gray here in northern Indiana, and a freezing rain falls because it is too early for snow but too late for warm autumn breezes. The days grow shorter because of the dwindling sunlight in the northern hemisphere. So during most dark Novembers, I long to just curl under my covers and hibernate.
Participating in this 30 Days of Gratitude project, however, has forced me to look on the bright side and find something (however small) to be thankful for. It reminds me that even in dark and gray November days there are people and comforts in my life that I should appreciate because life is fleeting.
It also causes me to think of how I express my feelings of gratitude to the amazing people in my life and remind them how important they are to me. For instance, after the memorial service for my childhood friend, my stepsister embraced me and told me that she loved me. This genuine act of caring on her part surprised me. Not because we don’t deeply care for each other, but because we (like most people) don’t really express these feelings frequently enough.
So I started thinking about how important it is that we express gratitude toward others. Inevitably it came down to considering how we as Unitarian Universalist parents teach our children to express their thankfulness. If we do not model this gratitude ourselves, how are they ever going to feel comfortable doing it?
There are people who keep gratitude journals and families who say grace before meals, but how often do we communicate our thankfulness for the small things in life to one another? What venue can we use to express our appreciation as a family and share with each other how important every member of the family is?
Then it occurred to me that an advent-style or 30-Days-of-Gratitude-type project in our homes might be a great vehicle for expressing our gratitude during this dark time of year. My family for years has created a chain of links to count down the December days until the Winter Solstice, when the shortest day of the year means the light will slowly return each day afterward. This year, I will suggest that as we cut the link off of the chain at the end of each day, we take the time to mindfully express our gratitude for someone or something that holds meaning for us. This will deepen our family ritual and, even more importantly, will lift up the importance of recognizing those things and people in our lives that we are most grateful for.
We all want our children to develop an attitude of gratitude, but there is a lot working against us in this department. Bombarded with messages celebrating consumerism, children may find it hard to be grateful. After all, obtaining material goods often seems to be the meaning of the holidays.
Countless parents have experienced dismay and embarrassment when their child opens a gift and, instead of saying “Thank You,” utters an exasperated, “I already have this.” Even a child who is naturally generous and giving may simply smile and set a less desirable present aside in the rush to unwrap another.
Beyond explaining gift etiquette and how one should respond even if a gift is unwanted, parents can model generosity. Our children watch what we do, so be sure to let them witness our own acts of kindness to others, particularly strangers or others in need. Our children also need to witness us giving money to the charities we support and volunteering for non-profit organizations—including our congregations.
As a present for birthdays, holidays, or on some other occasion, instead of getting one more toy or other item which will soon be discarded, parents can ask extended family members to consider giving a certificate to your child with the promise that you will give a set amount of money to a charity of their choice. If they are not sure which charity to support, investigate some possibilities with them. For example, the website CharityChoice offers a choice of more than 100 charities in 12 different categories.
Generosity doesn’t involve only financial giving. Helping others, either through random acts of kindness or through volunteering your time, is being generous, too. Talk to your children about the causes you support and why you give them your time and money. Think about the ways you can involve them in your volunteer opportunities in age-appropriate ways.
Finally, it’s important not to overlook the value of writing and sending thank-you notes for the gifts our children receive. As soon as they are able to write somewhat legibly and without a great deal of difficulty, children can write simple thank-you notes to express their appreciation for the gifts they receive. Grandma and Grandpa will be thrilled at the prospect and parents of similar-aged children will be impressed, but even the simple act of creating the thank-you cards speaks to the intentionality of recognizing the kindness of others. After all, gratitude is the loving twin of generosity. When we feel grateful, we are often generous—and when we are feeling generous, it helps us be grateful.
Unitarian Universalist parents sometimes overlook one of the most important values in life, albeit unintentionally. This value is gratitude.
© Courtney Weittenhiller/iStockphoto
Like compassion, gratitude cannot be taught simply through words and ideas. It needs to be communicated through actions and deeds. We often fail to teach our children the importance of gratitude because we neglect to show them how grateful we are ourselves.
Some Unitarian Universalist parents, who do not believe in thanking a divine presence, avoid the practice of expressing thanks in graces, blessings or prayers. But we also often neglect to show how grateful we are for what we have. Perhaps it’s merely human nature to take for granted what one already has, or maybe just the way our materialistic culture encourages us to long for that which we do not have.
In the ancient language of Sanskrit, the word santosha is loosely translated as “contentment.” Whereas we tend to think of happiness-as-bliss, this concept expresses the idea that contentment—rather than the obtaining of gratification—is the source of true happiness.
The Hindu religious tradition goes even further, regarding santosha (or contentment) as the natural state of our humanity, which allows for our creativity and love to emerge. It helps us to know our place in the universe at every moment and creates unity with the largest, most abiding reality. Santosha is above all a way of achieving inner peace.
Since finding inner peace through contentment requires us to feel good about what we have in life, gratitude is the natural result. Living every moment of our lives appreciating what we have means recognizing that the labors of many people—such as those who bring the food to our dinner table, from the farm workers in the field to the truck drivers who transported it to our community to the grocery shelf stockers who shelved it for us to the person in our family who did all that shopping and cooking (and the clean-up after the meal).
All families can express their appreciation and gratitude through the intentional act of noticing and commenting on what is good in their lives, no matter what their theology. Since expressing gratitude is intentionally recognizing how fortunate we are, it can create an inner shift in our thinking. Because of this, family ritual is perhaps the most powerful way of creating a culture of appreciation within a family. Whether it be prayer, spoken words before a meal, or a special recognition ritual before bedtime, Unitarian Universalist parents can pass on the special value of gratitude to their children through everyday family moments and special occasions.
Since gratitude is also about thanking one another, we can start with the people who share our lives—for, unfortunately, we are least likely to thank and appreciate the people who are closest to us. Finally, since gratitude is the twin sibling of generosity, being grateful can make us feel more generous. And the whole world needs more generosity.
What are you thankful for in your life? How do share your gratitude? How do you show your children your gratitude and teach them to also be thankful?