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The Importance of Teaching Children Grace, Appreciation and Gratitude.

Most of us have had that cringe-worthy experience of having one of our children be less than gracious when receiving a present. Once, my five year old told the gift giver, "I've already got one of these", before tossing the present aside and picking up the next one in the stack. Yes, that was a proud parenting moment for me... For the most part, it's cringe-worthy, but understandable in young children who are still learning empathy and manners, but yesterday I had this happen to me with my soon-to-be twelve year old, and it wasn't at all understandable, and in fact, I was deeply hurt by the experience.

My two oldest boys are born ten days apart (for those of you who have always heard they were born 11 days apart, I need to explain that apparently I can't count)...

More often than not this means we have to buy both lots of birthday presents out of the same pay fortnight. We had to do that this year, and this year both the boys were in need of new bikes. We've scrimped as much as we could to afford a couple of low end bikes, and on Thursday Jayne was kind enough to drive me to the local shopping centre to pick out and bring home two bikes.

The boys had decided they preferred small rimmed bikes for doing tricks on. We'd looked online and seen the sort of bike I'd probably be picking up. When I got to the shop, there were three bikes to choose from. Two were exactly the sort of bikes we'd looked at online, but were manufactured by two different companies, one charging more than the other (and outside of my tight budget). The third bike was WAY cool, with a really modern body, but it didn't have the stand bars on the wheels for doing some tricks - whereas the other two did. Because each bike only came in one colour, I had to buy two different bikes, or face the tricky situation of both boys having identical bikes (and if one got scratched or something neither of them would claim it as their bike, don't you know).

I decided the bike that was in my price range and was like what we had seen on the computer also had a lower seating range and would better suit Luey because he's short and has only just loearned to ride a bike properly. At the same time I was thinking the other bike with the really cool body would be something a 12 year old, aesthetically oriented, child would really appreciate.

Skip forward to yesterday. Luey gets his bike and is rapt!
Luey's bike, a Huffy Revenge: source

A little while later I asked Erik to go intot he bed to get a change of clothes for Ari - totally forgetting that his bike is in there, still in it's box. Erik comes out minutes later and says to me.

"Mum, I just saw a picture of my bike on the box in the bedroom, and you got the wrong one!" The tone of his voice was petulant - full of "you stuffed up".

Erik's bike, a Huffy Aggro: source

That tone has been quite prevalent in his voice lately. I've been irritated by it, and at the same time slightly amused by it, because it's so very "adolescent". But yesterday afternoon it felt more like a stab to my heart! Of course, being me, my first reaction was to get angry, and to say, "Well, I'll take it back then, but don't think I'll be replacing it, it's what there was to choose from, and what we can afford, and if you don't like it, then fine, you don't have to have it!" (uh, yeah, maturity is not my strength, either).

Then a wave of overwhelming hurt washed over me, and I knew I was going to burst into tears, so I sent him away. Luckily, Dave was taking the boys to the park. After they left I had a bit of a cry, and then I started to think about what had happened, and what I was afraid of.

Mostly I was afraid that Erik wasn't able to appreciate that his Dad and I had done the best we could. That he couldn't appreciate that he has so much. That he didn't have the ability to be gracious, and to understand that we meant well.

In the light of having seen all the suffering that was exposed on the "Go Back to Where You Came From" doco, I want my children to appreciate how much they have. No, they don't have as much as their peers at school - we live in a very well off area, and we are comparatively poor (but not at all POOR), but they have so much all the same. I want them to be appreciative of what they do have. I want them to have gratitude.

I don't want my children to FAKE gratitude though, I don't want them to say "Wow, what a great present, I really wanted this!" when that isn't how they feel. So I thought about it some more. I came up with this - and I learned something about gratitude as well...

The old saying, "It's the thought that counts", well, I had thought I knew what that meant, but at the same time I know I've been been disappointed when someone gave me something that wasn't my taste or what I'd been hoping for... So, I did understand what Erik was feeling. I still felt incredibly sad though. I felt sad because he hadn't even given our present a chance, and I had put a lot of thought into it. I knew it wasn't what he wanted, but I wasn't able to give him what he wanted. I still wanted to give him something to show him I was celebrating his special day, and I thought he might try to meet me half way and look for the positives in my gift. He hadn't.

When he came home, we talked. I told him when you thank someone for a gift, you're not thanking them for the THING, you are thanking them for caring enough to get the thing for you - whatever it is. Whether it is expensive, or cheap, brand new or second hand, your preference or something different. They made some sort of effort. They cared enough to do something for you and THAT is what you thank them for. You thank them for making some sort of effort, even if it misses the mark, even if it shows they don't really "get" you, even if you could have done som much better (in your estimation) to get them something they would love.

Grace is something I don't often hear referred to. Grace is about having good will, having mercy, offering clemency and pardoning people. It is unconditional love. Loving someone without provision. Grace goes hand in hand with compassion.

It requires empathy, and empathy takes a long time to develop wholly, it starts around the age of six, and continues to develop into adulthood (it is an abstract concept so while small children can mimick empathy when it is modelled for them, they often don't understand the concept until later, and then it developes in layers, beginning with people who are most like us and who we can relate to and slowly growing to encompass people who are very different from us, for which it's a stretch for us to relate to. Many adults never reach this final stage).

Grace is something I want my children to be aware of and to practice.

We'd already been talking about Gratitude and Appreciation in the wake of their school reports coming in on Friday.

The boys had GREAT reports, apparently they are all shining lights in their classrooms and liked by both teachers and students. That said, a couple of the boys still find it hard to stay focused and to not let themselves be distracted or to distract others. For one of the boys this is age related and just something he needs to be aware of. For the other boy, the expectation is higher and he needs to exert more effort in self-regulation - there is also the issue of prioritising tasks and getting homework in on time for the older boy.

So, again we were talking about how lucky the boys are to live in a country were not only is education provided by the Government, but because we don't live under the imminent threat of violence, they can safely attend school. We talked about how the children in the refugee camps dreamt of becoming teachers, doctors and astronauts but had no hope of it because there was no school, and it wasn't even safe for them to leave their house.

We talked about how if those children could go to school, they would not waste time, they would listen, they would do their homework, they might also think it's boring because they're also children, but they would APPRECIATE the opportunity and would show their GRATITUDE by making the very most of that opportunity.

Part of the reason I want my children to learn Grace, Appreciation and Gratitude is because I want them to be happy. While they feel hard done by, deprived, envious and short changed, they will never be happy. The grass will always be greener, life will always be boring...  I have, personally, wasted too much time in my life engulfed by these horrible feelings and they don't encourage, motivate or positively serve me in any way. My children have amazing opportunities laid on, and their lives can be magical provided they harness the skills of Grace, Appreciation and Gratitude. As a parent, those can be some of the greatest gifts I can give them - and those gifts are FREE!

After our talk, Erik seemed to understand better why it is important to practice Grace, to be Appreciate and to have Gratitude. He is a very bright child who shows a lot of empathy and compassion at times, and he is still learning, so I have a lot of hope that he will take in what we discussed and use it in future to inform his choices. Meanwhile, I have to be aware of modelling those same skills myself, so he can see them in action in other people!


mamabook said…
I just loved the thought behind this post, the process you went through, the lessons you learned and tried to teach your sons, and the honesty. Lots to think about for all of us.
Kate said…
Grace. I've not ears that word in this context for a long time, but your post has described exactly what I've been feeling the lack of in my big boy lately, and it is a painful thing here too.

He's a bit younger of course, but I have such an issue withthe sense of entitlement both he and the big girl are displaying at the moment. It hurts my heart and makes me wonder what I can do to help them understand.

It's probably quite age appropriate for my two, but it feels horrible nonetheless.
Kate said…
PS heard not ears obviously lol.

And it's so nice to hear 'your voice' in this post. :)
Sif said…
A sense of entitlement is something I've struggled with in my boys for years. I think it is probably age appropriate in children under 10-ish. My 10 year old is certainly starting to understand better that while we love him immensely and want to do for him whatever we can, he is not entitled to things, time, consideration over and above the other people in the house. Sometimes the 11 year old struggles with that, but we make some allowances for him being a slower developer emotionally - like his mother.

Still, I do have high expectations of the boys to be aware and push themselves because I want them to not have to suffer a lot of the confusion I suffered because it took me so long to understand how that I was not entitled, but often I was very fortunate to have anyway (and I STILL struggle with that feeling, so I try to also understand how much harder it might be for them).

Our society is also geared at causing children to feel they SHOULD be able to, they SHOULD have. Let's face it, nothing sells like entitlement, not even sex, hahaha!

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