Tips for Parents: How Gratitude Combats Entitlement

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5144062

One of those days where nothing seems to be going your way – we’ve all been there. You get up late, spill your coffee, remember that assignment that’s due at the last minute, trip over the dog on your way out the door. I used to wonder why some days were that way, continually spiraling out of control with one thing after the next falling to pieces.

These days, I’m convinced it’s a matter of attitude. What we pay attention to in any given moment seems to grow in importance. That’s not to say that there aren’t some things that are more vital and deserve more attention than others, but for the most part, we can choose how to see our lives – as a rolling disaster or as a pretty charmed life with some mishaps thrown in.

If we expect our lives to go smoothly, we will almost always be disappointed. Often that expectation translates to entitlement – we deserve to have a particular level of calm and, because we are “good” people and work hard, we are owed this courtesy. Because of the way teens’ brains are wired (to think of themselves as the center of the universe), that can mean that they get angry with their parents when things go wrong or turn out to be more difficult than they imagined. This can lead to excuses (I didn’t do it because it shouldn’t have been that hard. I shouldn’t have to do ‘X’.) and shortcuts. When this attitude persists over time, it can mean that your teen sees things through smoke-colored glasses – every thing that doesn’t come easily to them or work out perfectly is call for anger or frustration. So how do we, as parents, help mitigate that and bring our teens back to a place where they are happier and more appreciative of the life they have? In a word, gratitude.

While it’s true that often we have no control over the things that go wrong in our lives, we also have no control over some of the most beautiful and gracious gifts that come to us. The more we can help our teens learn to pay attention to those things, the more they can understand that there is so much good out there in life that surrounds them all the time. While it may feel trite to notice a gorgeous sunrise when you’re failing your history class, it is also an important part of adolescent brain development to exercise that part of the brain that allows for the simultaneous existence of beauty and struggle. This is one of the executive functions that teens really need to develop in order to move beyond concrete, black-and-white thinking. And as they are doing it, they can begin to alter their perceptions of the world. They can shift their thinking from believing that the world is a place that owes them a certain level of calm and entertainment to seeing their relationships and the complexities of the world around them that support them in all that they do as something that is amazing and wonderful.

More on gratitude and gratitude practices can be found here.

A Tip to Add Some Sibling Love to Your House

As the Chief Positivity Officer in our household, I’m always looking for ways to re-frame my kids’ day. When you’re surrounded by kids jockeying for position, stressing about homework and quizzes and their place on the team all day long, it can be pretty easy to feel as though life is a constant fight, and often when my daughters come home from a full day of competition and stress, they take it out on each other. They are quick to bicker, find fault with each other, and say things that they probably regret.

Like most households, we have a chalkboard hanging in the kitchen. A few months ago, I decided to commandeer it for a new experiment. What if I set up a place for anyone in the house to anonymously write something nice about another member of the family? I wrote everyone’s names at the top with the beginning of a sentence like this:

 

EVE          LOLA         MOM        DAD

is so awesome because

 

 

I kicked things off quietly by circling Eve’s name with a piece of white chalk and finishing the sentence. By the time everyone got home from school and work, the board read, “Eve is SO awesome because she is such a great friend.” Eve noticed the change when she came in for dinner and shook her head quietly. She is not a sentimental person, so she looked at me, cocked her head to the right and rolled her eyes, BUT she couldn’t suppress the smile twitching at the corners of her mouth. It felt good to be called out for something like that. She was smiling despite herself.

I am an idealist, but I am also realistic, so I didn’t expect an instant sea-change. I left the first message up for a few days and then quietly changed it again, this time circling “Dad” and reminding everyone that he is so great because he cracks us all up. This time Lola was the first to notice when she came down for breakfast. She immediately picked up the chalk and added some reference to an inside joke the two of them have, and walked away chuckling.

On Saturday night, my husband and I had plans for dinner with some friends, so we made the girls some food and headed out. I was hoping the two of them would have a relaxing evening watching movies and eating popcorn and talking about all of the things they don’t want their parents in earshot for. When we came home around 11pm, we all headed straight for bed without doing much of anything but hugging each other goodnight. I was the first one up on Sunday morning and as I headed to the coffee maker, I stopped and saw the board. It read, “Mom is SO awesome because she is such a good mom (and a good person in general).” What was so staggering is that it was in Eve’s handwriting. My cynic. My practical, non-sentimental kid took the initiative to write something that brought tears to my eyes. Of course, when I thanked her for it later in front of her sister, she denied writing it at all, but later she confessed that it was her and shrugged it off like it was no big deal. Except that it was.

We have settled into a routine of changing the board every few days with someone spontaneously erasing and writing in some new lovely compliment for another member of the family. Lola has been reminded that we love her adventurous spirit, and on Monday morning as she was packing up for a three day camping trip with her class, she wrote that she appreciated what a good sister Eve is to her. My heart melted.

I love this simple way of reminding our kids that looking for something positive about others is important and powerful. So often our communications at home are centered around things that have to get done or small conflicts we have with each other. Yes, we thank each other for small kindnesses (getting someone a glass of water when they’re already at the dinner table or carrying something up the stairs for them when their hands are full), but it isn’t often that we take the time to call out the things we really admire about each other and there is something really profound about seeing it in writing. To have someone take a moment to put into words how amazing you are is a pretty cool feeling. Who knows, maybe this small boost of public appreciation is just enough to help carry us through stressful times of the day with a more realistic assessment of how awesome we really are.

Simple Gratitude Practice for Kids

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I created these cards for my daughters when they were ten and eight. My oldest was struggling with anxiety at bedtime and cried every morning when I woke her up for school, desperately searching for some reason I ought to let her stay home. I hated to see her start and end every day like that and, honestly, it was wearing on me, too. After thinking about ways she could re-frame her day to inject some positive energy, I came up with this system.

I made each of them a ring with six beads in alternating colors.  There are three questions to ask before they get out of bed in the morning and three to ask right before they fall asleep. The idea is to slide the first bead to the side as they ask the first question, and slide the second bead as they come up with an answer. The morning questions are:

1. What can I expect from today?
2. What can I do to make today great?
3. What can I do for myself today?

The goal of the first question is to get some idea of what the day holds (a spelling test, a visit from Gram, school and then basketball practice, etc.). The second question offers them an opportunity to understand that they have the power to make it a good day, and the third helps to ensure that there is something they can look forward to that incorporates self-care.

The evening questions are:

1. What made me happy today?
2. How did I help someone else today?
3. What am I looking forward to tomorrow?

At the end of the day, I want them to look back and focus on the parts that they enjoyed, the places where they chose to make a difference for someone else, and have a compelling reason to get out of bed in the morning.

I started out by sitting with them as they asked and answered each question, gently guiding positive responses, and gradually weaned them off of having me there.  My oldest was happy to do it on her own, realizing that sometimes she wanted to keep her answers private, and my youngest prefers to have an audience. I designed the rings with their favorite colors and my youngest, who is a very tactile kid, really enjoys sliding them back and forth as she goes through the exercise. My other daughter, who is the kind of person that loves little treasures, slept for a year with the ring underneath her pillow as a talisman.

While I didn’t make myself a ring, I have found the simple practice of asking myself these questions to bookend my day is a powerful reminder of where to place my energy and how to ground myself every morning and every evening in what is most important to me.