Why so little gratitude?
As Thanksgiving rolls near, I find parents complaining that their children never seem to be happy with what they have been given, whether it’s gifts, time or entertainment experience.
I am curious, after spending a small fortune on a simple outing to buy a few things for the kids, how often do you get a sincere sense of gratitude? For some children, you may only get a comment about what’s next, or some whining about, ‘why can’t we stop at Taco Bell instead of going home for dinner?’
In other words, it’s never enough. When given something, either a gift or an outing, there is the incessant wanting of something more. Life seems inadequate, regardless of its’ abundance. How did we end up here, with so many children caught in the wanting of more…to find happiness? And what can we do about it?
What are we missing?
There is a bottom-line reality to our daily lives that our brains are conditioned to ignore. It’s not really our fault, in a way, given how we were raised and the evolving nature of daily life. But the truth is this: We live in the safest, healthiest and most abundant times man has ever experienced. Highways are smooth, electricity is constant, jobs are plentiful, and healthcare is available. Anything we want to know or get is usually within reach almost immediately.
And our children have it even better! Schools are better, playgrounds are better, coaches are better, and homes are better. Children have access to more resources than ever before, and information and entertainment is effortlessly instantaneous. Abundance abounds!
Yet, do we see happier children? Happier parents? No. We do not.
Instead, more and more, we see an increasing use of alcohol, illegal drugs and prescribed medications. We see increasing suicide. We see more negativity online. We see more folks thinking that life is inadequate to make them happy or satisfied.
Nurturing the sense of lack and needing more
I recently sat with a young man, age 16, who wanted to go to a counselor so he and his mom could do therapy. Now, first understand this: His mom works very hard, sends him to the private school he chose, gives him an allowance, and takes he and his friends out to dinner every week. This does not include the weekend activities she drives him to, nor the many outings and shopping sprees he enjoys. In our session, she is attentive and interested.
In the session, son sits with his mom present, and then describes all the things he wants to change about her. He wants more allowance, wants her to plead (apparently) for forgiveness for a wrongdoing, and criticizes her smile and her personality. And, he does so with impunity and a self-certainty that is untouchable.
And yet, his life is quite abundant, filled with opportunity and resources.
He finds only ways to complain about his mom, and thus, finds mostly misery. Mom responds by attempting to appease this young man, offering to negotiate more allowance, apologizing again for a mistake from three years ago, and offering to be more respectful of his wishes.
This is how we nurture lack
This session exquisitely illustrates how we can often nurture lack, and needing more, despite abundance. As parents, we see our children unhappy, as they complain or seek a change in life to be happier. Thinking that they know what they need, we then respond and give them what they want.
And perhaps, for the moment, they are happy. Maybe it lasts a minute, maybe an hour or maybe a day or two. But often, there is something more needed very soon, in order to be happy again. We find complaints and whining arises, and the request for something else now needed for happiness.
And many of you, like this mom (in a sense), keep trying to give more and respond to this misery, thinking this might finally make them happy. But it will not.
The secret: Who is responsible?
The critical piece to notice that you can find a fundamental difference in children who continually seek to get happiness by wanting more from the world, compared to children who find happiness with what they have.
The difference is clear in how they engage with mom or dad, or even coaches and teachers. If we teach children that we will keep responding to their requests, by giving them more or by attending to their endless requests, we program them to believe that ‘Mom… Dad…you are responsible for my happiness.’ They get trained to look to others, or other things, to fill that void by seeking more. Then, children find that to be inadequate, so they ask for even more. Just hit repeat…forever.
The fundamental understanding that ‘I am responsible’ for my misery, or my happiness, is never nurtured. If children are never allowed to struggle and squirm through their misery with their good life, because we keep giving them what they want, it is impossible to discover that life is good right now. It’s impossible to know that, ‘I do have enough to be happy.’
The secret juice here is for parents to discern the difference between children complaining and seeking more from others, versus discovering how to find happiness with the abundant life they do have. Let’s consider Thanksgiving as launching pad to ensure two things happen: First, we start to walk our talk by realizing that ‘I am responsible’ for my happiness and modeling this in every conversation and every moment I engage with family.
Secondly, we stop fixing every moment of misery or complaint, and simply allow those moments to pass. Most are not ours to fix, if we want to build that sense of gratitude that comes from your child knowing, ‘I have all I need to be happy.’ This is truly a profound gift to offer your family this Holiday Season.
Dr. Randy Cale, a Clifton Park-based parenting expert, author, speaker and licensed psychologist, offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. His website, www.TerrificParenting. com, offers free parenting guidance and an email newsletter. Readers can learn more by reviewing past articles found on the websites of The Saratogian, The Record and The Community News. Submit questions to DrRandyCal[email protected]
Dr. Randy Cale