The giving of thanks itself is one of life’s unremarked blessings.
My wife and I have the sweetest child any parents could ask for. (He’s also the smartest, the cutest, the most fun and has the best laugh and smile, but that’s for another column.) Take his concern, as expressed in our recent “conversation,” for his greatest obsession at 22 months of age: Daddy’s lawnmower.
Me: No, Daddy’s not going to mow the yard today.
Charlie, putting his hand to his head, like a pillow: Sleep?
Me: You think the mower is sleeping?
Charlie: Yeah. Ba?
Me: You think the mower needs a ba (pacifier)?
Charlie: Yeah. Blank-blank?
Me: You think the mower needs a blanket?
Charlie: Yeah. Book?
Me: You think Daddy needs to read the mower a book before it goes to sleep?
He doesn’t just verify that the lawnmower’s needs are met as his are. He’s at the age where he wants his stuffed animals, and sometimes even his blanket, to eat crackers or drink milk whenever he does. Like I said, he’s a genuine sweetie.
We’re working on “yes” instead of “yeah” — Daddy needs to watch his own mouth on that one — and he volunteers a “please” maybe half the time.
But “thank you”? Our tenderhearted little boy hardly ever utters those words, even when prompted.
A big part of child-rearing is teaching the values and social mores that don’t come pre-loaded. But the child must be ready to understand the concept, and gratitude doesn’t seem to click instantly in the minds of young children, who begin life with a cry-till-Mama-makes-me-happy instinct.
I’m not talking about simple pleasantries to recite, like a perfunctory exchange of thank-yous with a sales clerk after you pay him for a pack of gum and he hands you the change. Nor the how-can-I-ever-repay-you kind of thanks that you might shower on someone who saves your life by giving you a kidney.
I mean the kind of intentional, habitual gratitude that, like all good habits, requires practice but ultimately becomes its own reward.
Americans these days, we’re good at the superficial and the dramatic — in a lot of ways — and that includes the giving of thanks. We’re way past being ready for a deeper understanding of the concept.
That’s what people are getting at, I think, when they lament a culture of entitlement and rising tendencies toward narcissism. Gratitude makes us more content with what we have, more inclined to turn our thoughts outward. In turn, it makes us more willing to reach out to others who are equally appreciative.
Please don’t think I’m being self-righteous here. I have my fair share of blockheaded moments of ungratefulness.
Example: the rainy night a couple of weeks ago when my car engine stalled.
When my wife arrived to pick me up, she found me very, ahem, frustrated. It was left to her to point out how lucky it was that the car made it until the rain had stopped and I had turned off Peachtree Street onto a side road, where I was able to steer into a store parking lot rather than blocking rush-hour traffic.
That’s the kind of spirit that prevailed in times past, such as when the Pilgrims took three days to give thanks even though they’d built more graves than homes over the previous year. And when President Lincoln made Thanksgiving a permanent national holiday amid the worst of the Civil War.
Luckily for Charlie, Mommy will probably teach him more lessons about gratitude than Daddy will. And if he does learn to make gratitude a habit, it will be more likely to prevail for him when there isn’t a turkey on the table.