Why so lit­tle grat­i­tude?

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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