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Raising Grateful Children

A couple of years ago, on a crisp and sunny October day, I left my office for a lunch break and drove to a local cafe. Many students waited in line and filled the outdoor tables. As I walked in, an attractive young woman, who appeared to be about 17, approached me. She wore fashionable distressed skinny jeans and carried an iPhone in her manicured hands. “Can you give me two dollars?” she asked.

Surprised, I looked at her more closely, as my own two children had recently graduated from the high school a few blocks away. Not recognizing her, I asked, “What’s up?” She heaved a frustrated sigh. “I just need some fries.”

I paused to take this in, and then reflected: “So I am a perfect stranger to you, and you’re thinking that it’s appropriate to ask me to pay for your French fries?” She rolled her eyes and replied, “Well….yeah.” Her ability to pronounce “yeah” as a three-syllable word and to infuse it with such annoyance saddened me. “Sorry,” I replied, “I’m not going to be able to help you.”

Although I could easily understand sharply negative opinions of this young woman and her glaring sense of entitlement, my three decades of experience as a therapist led me instead to reflect that well-intended parenting can go awry and result in a young woman having unrealistic expectations.

We, as parents, can often recognize that we want to raise children who feel a sense of gratitude for what21503145_l they have in their lives. But we are often baffled as to how to accomplish this important goal.

When I am working with parents to develop these skills, my first teaching point is to guide them in the murky process of recognizing the difference between a “want” and a “need,” both in themselves and in their children.

Second, I ask them to redefine their idea of what we, as parents, owe our children. My example list of those responsibilities is: 1) love; 2) shelter; 3) food; 4) reasonable clothing; and 5) medical care.

Anytime we are going above and beyond that baseline is a rich moment for reflection. Why am I making this choice? Is this really for my child or is it making me feel better? Am I capable of saying “no” when that would be the better choice? If not, why not?

When we slow ourselves down to make these decisions more thoughtfully, we are modeling an important skill for our kids: the capacity to pause, and to respond rather than react. When we, as parents, hold steady with our decisions and limits, we also model for them the ability to tolerate the brief discomfort of saying “no” to ourselves when we recognize that something is a momentary “want” and not really a “need.”

These are the moments where the important character qualities of self-discipline, delayed gratification, and gratitude are planted and can take root. These are the lessons that determine whether a young person will be overwhelmed by annoyance over not having French fries, or instead will be focused on appreciation of friends, food and a sunny autumn day.

Sharon M. Smith, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist in private practice who has worked in the Eugene area for the last 20 years. She is the proud mother of two spectacular young adults and says that parenting has been her favorite, most difficult, and most rewarding job. Contact her by email at drsharonsmith@comcast.net or call 541.343.3114.

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