I’ve been a mum for one and a half years now. Short, really, in the grand scheme of things and yet it feels like it’s been this way forever. It feels like forever that I’ve thumbed through parenting magazines–dog-earring baby recipes, make-your-own dream-catcher instructions and cute Christmas crafts that call for pine cones and glitter and fake snow. I have perfected the art of pumpkin pureeing and dealing with fussy eaters and nappy fastening and how to get babies to go the hell to sleep. However, stored behind rapidly-growing craft boxes and baby books recording the milestones my girl makes, lies a stack of parenting books focusing on the bigger stuff – how to raise children to be confident, independent, loving and happy people.
While so much of parenting is providing for a child’s basic needs, there is a greater, harder, longer path we tread with our children which, at its core, is about guiding them to adulthood, where they move away from us and towards themselves – their own dreams, their own goals, their own lives. For me, this is the greatest challenge and greatest privilege of parenting another human being. So, I read books about children’s psychology and positive discipline methods. Joel and I talk about strategies we do and don’t want to enforce in redirecting bad behavior and boosting effective communication and teaching kindness and emotional awareness. At the very basis of our efforts is the desire for our children to be happy. Ultimately, that’s what all parents want for their kids. And I know – I’ve read in countless books – that being thankful is a central concept in experiencing happiness. It’s a key aspect, in fact, so much so that lasting happiness – the feeling of general and continual contentment – is rooted in the feeling of being grateful for what you have. Gratitude and happiness….go together like a horse and carriage. Or so the song goes.
Teaching our children to be grateful though? It’s daunting. It seems like a big and hard job. And I think the reason is this.
We often feel grateful when we compare our lives with those less fortunate. We feel grateful for our babies when we tuck them in at night after hearing about friends who are struggling to fall pregnant. We feel grateful when we watch the world news and see images of refugee camps and wars and Indian children being married off to old men before their twelth birthday. We sink into our comfortable couches and we think, among other things, “Thank God that’s not me. Not my child. Not my family. Thank God I live in a free country where women have equal rights. Thank God I live in this warm, cozy home and thank God I have food in my fridge.” This is all well and good, but the problem with feeling gratitude in the face of other’s hardship is the feeling of guilt and pressure which accompanies it. I feel so bad for these people. Look at their suffering. It’s just terrible. I’ve got it so easy. I shouldn’t complain. Stop complaining. Be thankful. Be more thankful. Seriously, you really need to be more thankful.
While I believe living in awareness of world realities and global hardships can put our own troubles in perspective, I don’t think our feelings of thankfulness should be ignited only when we hear bad news or see others suffering.
So, what does it mean to be grateful? And how do we tackle the high-pressured job of raising thankful children?
If I asked Ella to explain gratitude – and she could talk of course – I’m pretty sure she’d be stumped. But if I asked her to tell me what her favorite thing about today was, she’d pause and a smile would creep across her face, and then she might begin by describing how good the ocean felt on her toes this morning when she took her first step into the shell-flecked water. How much she loved plucking strawberries straight off their vine and plopping them right into her mouth. How her dad made her laugh. How much she loved seeing baby chickens at the show. How good the strawberry ice cream tasted.
What I’ve come to realize is this. I am happiest when I am most grateful, and I am most grateful when I am aware of my surroundings and what it is about this very moment that makes me feel content. I make it a priority for gratitude to become a way of life for myself – a way of seeing things – rather than an emotion I experience when I compare my life to others less fortunate. And most of all, the best way I can pass that on to my children is to simply live it.
I want my kids to hear me gush about the world around me. Like blue skies painted with pink strokes at dusk. Plump, juicy mangoes in December. The smell of fresh sun-dried cotton that leaks from washing baskets when clean clothes are brought in from the line. The best assortment of shells that frame the shoreline. I am realizing I need to have less now-let’s-sit-down-and-have-a-talk-about-being-grateful talks with my kids as they get older. I know that what’s more important is addressing the deeper foundation of gratitude in our home – the ever present existence of the awareness of good.
I want these kind of moments to fill our lives. And until my kids are old enough to know more and talk more – and even when they are – I will enthusiastically praise the world around me. I will sing to my most favourite songs on long road trips. I will dance. I will make sure that my kids have a collection of adjectives with which to describe a blue sky they love, a sweet slice of pie they’re enjoying, a hug they want to hold on to.
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?”
~Mary Oliver (from “The Summer Day”)
And that, my friends, is gratitude
Right now, this is what I’m grateful for.
I’m grateful for strawberry fields and bright blue skies and a little girl who is mine.
*For any locals, this is a Pick-Your-Own strawberry farm called Strawberry Fields – take exit 190 off the Bruce Highway. It was stacks of fun and although you’re not supposed to eat any strawberries in the fields, I’m sure they account for a few getting swiped by small hands and mouths and charge accordingly.
I’m grateful for show season and a partner who, at midday, looks over to me and says, “Let’s go to the Ekka. The baby animals, and the dog shows, and the rides. Ella will love it.” I’m grateful we have the money to buy over-priced dagwood dogs and strawberry sundaes for a once-a-year treat. I’m grateful for car parks that are close and crowds that aren’t too big and the festive spontaneous feeling of why the hell not?
I’m grateful for fresh salads with roasted corn in them for dinner.
I’m grateful for hot baths scented with rose bath salts.
I’m grateful for fresh sheets on the bed, smelling of sun and God.
I’m grateful for spontaneous days.
I’m grateful for my camera and my keyboard and the extra parts of life I see because of them.
Happy Thursday, friends. Tell me, what you are you grateful for?
And to all a good night.