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Instilling the Attitude of Gratitude


Ron L. Deal



It was one of those frustrating parenting days when you realize that shaping a child’s outward behavior - as difficult as that is - is easier than shaping their heart. Nan and I had been wrestling with one of our children who had a case of affluenza. In case you don’t know, affluenza is the not-so-medical diagnosis for those who have too much stuff and don’t appreciate it; it arises from affluence which is the virus that spoils thankfulness.  (If you live on more than $1 a day, by the world’s standards you qualify as affluent.)


Our 10 year-old son (who will remain nameless to protect the guilty), had been coming home from school whining about all the stuff that other kids had that he wanted. “Austin has a TV in his room,” he grumbled. “And Terry has his own X-Box. Why can’t I get that?”


Among the attitudes we want for our children, gratitude is high on the list. It keeps us grounded in life and appreciative of others. Gratitude is a close cousin to humility, which is the antidote of pride and selfishness. Both are important for warding off affluenza.


As Nan and I reflected on our son’s troubling disease, I reviewed our previous parenting attempts to instill the attitude of gratitude in our son. From the time he was very young, we asked him to say, “thank you,” when given something. We insisted he say “please,” so he wouldn’t come to believe that what he wanted was his right to possess, and we modeled these manners ourselves.


As he got older, we taught him to save his money for things he really wanted - we didn’t buy everything for him - so he would cherish things more once he could afford them. We even waxed eloquent numerous times about the value of thankfulness. The week affluenza took root, we had spoken with him about the difference between wants and needs (aren’t lectures supposed to convince children to agree with us and obey?). All our attempts were solid strategies for training a child; and yet, gratitude was no where to be found (good grief, parenting truly is a work in progress).


So, what were we going to do? That’s when I remembered: sometimes parents should step out of the way and give children experiences that teach powerful lessons they will not soon forget. It was time to orchestrate such an experience.


It happened to be Friday night - “family night,” as we call it. Our tradition is to eat pizza and rent movies to watch as a family. As we walked into our favorite pizza restaurant, I stopped our son and asked him question. “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’?”


“I think so,” he muttered.


“Well,” I replied, “you’re about to learn what it means.” Confusion filled his eyes. I explained, “We are going in to eat, but you are not. You will sit and watch the rest of us eat dinner. When we get home, you will not join us for movie time, but will be confined to your room for the evening. Throughout the weekend, you may not play video games, your MP3 player or watch TV. Oh, and by Monday I expect you to write an essay about what the phrase ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ means to you.”


It was a long weekend (for all of us). But he survived. After a weekend of going without, his essay reflected the heart of someone who had realized how much he already possessed instead of focusing on what else he thought he needed. He taught himself (with a little help from his mom and me) to appreciate his blessings. 


Thankfully, we conquered affluenza - at least until the next strain comes along.




Ron L. Deal is President of Smart Stepfamilies.  He is an author, conference speaker, and licensed family therapist. 



Comments ( 4 )
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#4: by MO on 03.08.2009 @ 07:13am CDT

After years of his begging to take him to a certain foreign country, we are taking a family vacation to the country. It's expensive, and just after buying the tickets we learned of an important professional opportunity that one parent had to forgo because of the plans. Fine, we love our kids and are looking forward to the trip. But the very kid who wanted it is being apathetic about learning about the country and irritable about packing, shopping, planning for the trip. So I made a speech about how we were glad to go but wanted him to understand how much it cost and that it also cost us the other opportunity. He -- age 13 1/2 -- too it very badly, said that was a guilt trip, said "if that was how we were going to be he'd rather not go," etc. We said we weren't desiring guilt, just appreciation and some energy. I feel bad -- it was our first real "teenage" explosion from him. I also wonder where the line is between guilt and appreciativness/gratitude. I also wonder if it's ok to "tell" kids to feel gratitude to God, but not ok to "tell" kids to feel gratitude to us. Is there a way of asking for appreciation without seeming prideful or guilt inducing? Is it OK to ask to be thanked, or is that poor modeling of pettiness and bean-counting?
#3: by CM on 11.09.2008 @ 09:01pm CST

Thank you Ron, it is true, that as long as our actions are guided by our love for our children, then there is nothing to question.
#2: by Ron L. Deal on 10.06.2008 @ 02:58pm CDT


You might try being a broken-record when your child ope nly criticizes you for not buying stuff: "Actually, we love you so much we won't buy that for you" or quote Jesus, "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul?". Just repeat this over and over so they get the point.

Having said all this, know that these are rational arguments for an irrational, self-indulgent child. He/she may not have ears to hear rational thought...until life forces them to grow up a little (maturity does wonders for hearing problems). RLD
#1: by CM on 10.03.2008 @ 03:31pm CDT

Thanks for writing this. It's difficult enough to hear our child's laments for toys, electronics or brand name label apparel because of the influence of other preteens. I'm curious what might be suggested in the case where the ex-spouse indulges gives in to nearly each and every whim of our child's. The result? Our child openly critizes us, that if we really loved them, then we would give them whatever they wanted. While it breaks our heart to hear this, and despite explaining that realistically, our budgets can't afford every new toy or gadget - a child so driven by emotion can hardly see reason. At one point, in exasperation, I argued "If you want to hold us to that kind of standard to prove our love - then you need to do the same of yourself. You must not really love us because you don't shower us with gifts." Turning the tables has been ineffective - it goes through one ear and out the other. What are others' experiences and recommendations?

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