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If you want grateful children, be grateful

Unitarian Universalist parents sometimes overlook one of the most important values in life, albeit unintentionally. This value is gratitude.

Boy with Thank You sign

© 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?

What do we do about holidays?

Christmas and Easter are quintessential Christian holidays that most Unitarian Universalist families celebrate in their own fashion, and in a way that generally fits their theology. People who share a Jewish heritage may celebrate Hanukkah, Passover, Yom Kippur, and Rosh Hashanah. Muslims have high holy days, too—particularly Eid al-Fitr, which commemorates the end of Ramadan. Hindus have a festival of light they call Divali, and many Buddhists celebrate Buddha’s birthday or the day he is believed to have reached enlightenment.

Name a religious tradition, and you’ll find that there are special holidays or holy days associated with it. But not ours. Sometimes it seems as if all the holidays we UUs celebrate derive from some other religious tradition! But how do we build a value of Unitarian Universalist identity in our children if all we do is convert the holidays of other faiths into ones we can support?

There may not be a single, solitary religious celebration that currently exists for all Unitarian Universalist families to celebrate. (Some UUs have started celebrating Chalica in early December, to celebrate the UUA’s Seven Principles, or holding Sources Suppers, which celebrate the UUA’s Six Sources.) But there are holidays—some of which seem exclusively secular on the surface—that merit celebration because they fit our values and our Principles. We can claim these holidays as particularly meaningful to our faith and add a religious element to them if we choose to do so. For instance, Martin Luther King Day (January 18) is a holiday that focuses upon service to others. Since social justice is a spiritual practice for so many Unitarian Universalists, intentionally commemorating this holiday as a family lifts up the value we place upon helping others.

There are other opportunities to celebrate occasions, people, and events that are important to us. And while it would be rather burdensome to celebrate them all, as Unitarian Universalists we can see such celebrations as opportunities to express our individual family beliefs and guiding values. (See Meg Cox’s UU World article, “New Family Traditions,” for a good guide to creating your own family rituals.)

Darwin Day (February 12) is not exclusively for Unitarian Universalists, for instance, but its celebration of the wonder of science meshes well with our beliefs: We often turn to science and reason for inspiration as well as holy books and sacred texts. And then, of course, there’s Earth Day (April 22). While Unitarian Universalists pride themselves on being “green” all year round, we can make a special effort on this day to celebrate the gains we have made in the areas of conservation and environmental protection while at the same time recognizing how far we have yet to go.

Then there is John Murray Day, celebrated on or around September 30, a time when Unitarian Universalist families can celebrate the arrival of Universalist John Murray on the New Jersey shore. His Universalist message of a loving God who would not damn anyone to hell—the idea of universal salvation—caught fire in America and the rest (they say) is history.

If we want to give our children a special sense of what it means to be a Unitarian Universalist, we may want to add some holidays like these into the mix. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call them holy days. Whether they are national days of service, ways of commemorating environmental protection efforts, celebrating science or our Unitarian Universalist heritage—families can affirm their shared beliefs by the special days they choose to celebrate together.

For my family, the most meaningful holy day of the year is celebrated on the evening of the Winter Solstice, December 21. We call it the Longest Night, and we observe it by not using electric lights or other electricity (besides heating) after sundown. It helps us to remember how important the sunlight was to our northern European ancestors and how the shorter days and longer nights made daily living a challenge.

How do the holidays your family celebrates reflect your UU values and identity? What holiday traditions have you developed or adopted?