Monthly Archives: October 2011

Attitude of gratitude: can we teach our kids to be grateful?

It was a classic parenting pitfall, deliberately engineered by the evil geniuses at Disney World. I should have seen it coming, but I was taken totally off-guard.

My parents had generously flown our whole family down for a week at the amusement park, complete with on-site accommodations and meal package. It was a tremendous gift for all of us and an opportunity for plenty of memories and family fun.

We’d told our daughters (then 7 and 2) how lucky they were to go. We hadn’t done much airplane travel with them, so this was a really big deal. I had loaded up on Disney items on sale and at the dollar store before we went, and brought them along so I could dole out small gifts when we were there and avoid the vastly inflated prices in the park.

But what I hadn’t counted on was that every single big ride forced us to exit through the gift shop (thanks for the warning, Banksy). Adrenaline coursing through their little bodies, totally primed by the cleverly engineered multimedia experiences of spinning, bouncing and twirling through Disney worlds, our three daughters then found themselves face to face with retail versions of exactly the same Minnie Mouse, Princess or whatever animated character they had just seen in the ride. There were t-shirts, elaborate dress-up costumes, alarm clocks, stuffed animals, souvenir cups and a million other novelty items destined for brief, exhilarated enjoyment and then a quick descent into the eventual garage sale pile.

All around us, small children were either being indulged by credit card-carrying adults sporting strained smiles on their faces OR they were in various stages of consumption-related meltdown.

Somehow, our girls mostly managed to hold it together. They knew from experience that we don’t buy that kind of stuff, so they tended to gaze longingly at the shiny items without directly asking for them. When their grandmother indulged them one evening with some light-up Mickey Mouse wands, they were incredulous (“Mommy NEVER buys us things like this!”). But all around us, boys and girls either melted down or flashed their booty with exaggerated pride (at least until the next gift shop).

The whole experience made me think about the ways we teach our children the slippery concept of gratitude. As parents, we naturally want to them to truly appreciate all we do for them, a perspective that generally requires a certain amount of maturity and experience. But our culture surrounds them with constant pitches for more, bigger, better, newer, shinier, faster. And we tend to fall for it as much as they do (new iPad anyone? large screen plasma TV?).

Advertising and a culture of consumption instruct them on the ways we learn to define ourselves by our stuff. And since our stuff quickly gets outdated (replaced by newer versions), this culture requires a perpetual dissatisfaction, so that we are always motivated to buy newer, more stylish things.

If we have learned to express our love for our children through things, then it’s understandable that our kids have come to expect them as their due. The more we give them, the more they expect to be given. They feel entitled to have all they want. They become resentful and whiny when “everyone else in grade 2 has an iPod Touch.”

In her brilliant book The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, author Wendy Mogel tells parents not to worry too  much about a lack of appreciation from our kids. Drawing from Jewish teachings, she says that deed is more important than creed: we need to teach our kids to use the right manners and expressions of appreciation, and the feeling of gratefulness will eventually follow.

She says that an impulse to do bad (yetzer hara) exists alongside the impulse to do good (yetzer tov). We need the former for the passions it can inflame in us, but we need to learn how to control it. Kids don’t know how to do this yet, and in teaching them the appropriate behaviors and self-control, they will become more inclined to be guided by the good instead of led astray by the evil.

It’s an interesting idea.

It’s the same reason we make our kids say “I’m sorry” when they really aren’t, or “thank you” without being particularly thankful. After going through the motions with these social norms for a while, do we not eventually internalize them?

After all, Mogel says our kids don’t respond to logic and reasoning (“you don’t need that plastic Disney Princess crown – you already have a lot of dress-up clothes”) or pious lecturing (“do you know how lucky you are to even be here in Disney World when kids all over the world have to go to bed hungry?”). She reminds us that parenting is about guidance, not consensus. When we say no, we can offer a short explanation and just move on, despite the wailing and tantrums that may ensue.

It’s good advice. Parents today often want to be their kids’ friends, and they try too hard to make them happy and be liked. In fact, being a good parent sometimes means making your kids unhappy and having them dislike you.

But what really struck me about her argument is recognizing that your kids’ lack of gratitude is not necessarily a personality flaw. It might just be a natural expression of their unrestrained zeal, their yetzer hara. If we can achieve a bit of critical distance (which is hard to do when faced with a loudly squalling child in the middle of a Disney gift shop), we might just see it as a normal part of childhood behavior.

While I do think there is some reason in her argument (no child is perfect – nor should we expect them to be), lack of gratitude must be consistently headed off with dialogue about what our children should be thankful for. Many parents find it very hard to exercise a disciplined reluctance to give in to most demands for consumer items (even if we can afford them). Itcan be challenging to make a clear distinction between expressions of love (time spent together, activities shared, hands held, fevered brows cooled, forgotten lunches driven to school) and buying stuff.

I think we need to say “no” to our kids sometimes simply for the experience of saying no. Because if they always get everything they want, why would they appreciate it? Gifts should (mostly) be saved for birthdays and holidays. Want a new skateboard? Save your allowance or wait for your birthday. Break your iPod? Dip into your savings to replace it or do without.

That’s what real life is like. And if we really love them, we will teach them that when they are young. One day they will be extremely thankful for that.

Building resilience (part 2): How to give your kids a sense of connection

We spent this past weekend on a whirlwind trip to New York and Connecticut to visit my niece and two nephews. With all the holidays, school events and work obligations, it can be really difficult to find a mutually convenient time to go, so even though it meant a lot of driving for a Friday night to Sunday evening visit, we decided to just go for it.

My brother and sister-in-law’s children are still really little (3 1/2, 2 and 5 months) but the older two are now able to recognize and remember their cousins, and my girls are eager to bond with the only first cousins they have in North America, so we’ve committed to making the most of this connection where we can.

We arrived in New York at 2 a.m. on Saturday, but had the girls up and ready for a great day at the Bronx Zoo with their little cousins. They held hands, played games, sang songs and cuddled the baby. We joined them for a fundraising walk on the beautiful Connecticut shore for their local special needs provider on Sunday morning and then made the long trek back to Montreal on Sunday afternoon and evening, getting them to bed at 11:15 p.m. on a school night.

Despite the late hours and lack of sleep, my girls were absolutely delighted by the weekend away. They loved that their two-year-old cousins knows their names, and that they could sing along with him and his big sister. They particularly enjoyed spoon-feeding and holding their baby cousin.

It was worth every hour of that drive to nurture that connection.

Connection to family is only one kind of connection, of course, but it’s potentially the most powerful one there is. And we know that connection is one of the 7 C’s of Resilience, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (the others are coping, control, confidence, competence, character and contribution).

A connection to trusted people, especially adults, gives kids a sense of stability, enables them to feel loved  and appreciation (and to express love and appreciation themselves). This sense of belonging is a key part of resilience, because it helps kids face adversity and overcome challenges. They know they are part of a bigger picture of support. When they feel the security that comes from strong connection, they may be more likely test themselves and try new things. They can build the other C’s of resilience, like confidence and competence.

In addition to family, kids can also develop connection with their school, their local communities, their synagogue, church, mosque or temple or other community groups like Cub Scouts and Girl Guides. Big Brother and Big Sister programs are great examples of connection building for kids who might not have access to enough trusted adults in their own families or neighbourhoods.

So how do we help our kids build connection? Well, first of all, we need to give them opportunities and time to do so  — creating family rituals and traditions, taking part in community activities, planning a block party to get to know your neighbours, or becoming involved in their school.

Connection means seeking out the linkages that are meaningful and trust-worthy to you as a family and to them as individuals. It means listening to them when they talk, and responding to what they say with are and attention.

It also means letting them hold up their end of the connection, so that they too get to express love, appreciation, time and whatever talents, skills or interests they might have. That can be feeding a baby cousin, participating in a school fundraiser or going camping with the local Cub Scout troupe.

And while parents needn’t be implicated in every one of these connections (especially as kids get older and seek to nourish new connections of their own), we can and should be supportive of the ones they make.

There are some things kids can never get too much of: love, security, affection, dignity. And when it comes to forging connections, there is no such thing as too much belonging. Which is why I will cherish the memory of my girls and their cousins cuddling together for the few brief hours they get to see each other several times a year.

Teaching kids good coping strategies to build resilience do some kids grow up in two-parent homes with all the apparent support and advantages a child could need, yet still end up making poor choices that lead them to problems with drugs, alcohol or other high-risk behaviors? Conversely, why do some kids come from broken homes, dysfunctional families or communities dealing with alcohol and drugs, and yet are still able to resist the pull of these activities?

While each individual case may be different, experts often point to the complex notion of resilience to explain the qualities that enable some kids to navigate safely through the pitfalls of high-risk activities, while others seem to inexplicably fall through the cracks.

When I teach workshops about risk prevention, I always make a point of covering what the American Academy of Pediatrics calls the “The 7 C’s of Resilience.” These seven points (competence, confidence, connection, character, control, coping and contribution) cover the key elements that kids need to deal with the challenges that life throws their way.

Knowing these qualities are part of resilience is only part of the battle; the key question is how to build on them so each child is best positioned to make healthy choices for themselves during their teen years and into adulthood. In my workshops, I focus in on specific strategies parents and teachers can use at different ages to build these qualities with kids. Ideally, building resilience is something we want to begin when kids are very young, but it’s never too late to start.

But while all of them are important, the academic literature on resilience is particularly emphatic about the importance of good coping strategies. Coping strategies make the difference between a kid who crumples in tears at the first sign of adversity and the child who is able to deal with the stress and figure out how to move forward to some kind of resolution.

It’s what all parents hope our kids can do. But that isn’t always the case.

As a university professor, I occasionally met kids with poor coping skills. Many of these kids don’t even make it to college, but often enough mom or dad hovered in the background waiting to pick up the pieces and help make everything OK. But parents don’t come to university classes, and they don’t micromanage their grown up children’s class schedules the way they might have in high school.

So when someone fails a test, or hands in an assignment late without any good excuse, or misses some important administrative deadline, the students with poor coping skills just can’t cope. They either blame it on someone else (sometimes that was me, their professor), fall apart in my office or drop or fail the class.  They didn’t know how to process the stress of a demanding university program, or they couldn’t deal with the demands of a part-time job, or their romantic partners broke up with them. Or they partied too hard and it took a toll on their schoolwork.

The kind of stuff life throws at everyone is just too much for some people.

So what do coping skills look like and how do we teach them? Turns out that there are different kinds of coping, and they aren’t all equal. Passive coping skills are things like escapism and distraction: turning to television, video games or alcohol to get our minds off the crap we might be dealing with at school or at work. But while parking our brains at an occasional episode of Glee or an hour of World of Warcraft (or even a nice glass of wine, if we are over 18) isn’t a bad thing, it doesn’t actually help us work through the stress we have waiting for us when the TV or computer click off.

What we need to rely on more often is active coping, which are strategies that help us actively process the physical and emotional stress that is part of life. These are things like talking with friends or family, writing in a journal, playing an instrument, going for a run or shooting some hoops at the park. It can be playing a sport (though the stress of competition may become part of the problem for some). It can be writing angst-filled songs or complex lines of computer programming, doing yoga or pitching a ball against the garage door.

Active coping strategies involve thinking, even if it isn’t about the stressors themselves. They can involve creative or physical activity that helps work through pent-up frustration. They can involve cathartic expressions of emotion, even if they are not directly related to any specific problem. They may or may not include laughter, tears, anger and sweat.

Active coping helps people think more clearly, so they can eventually turn their refreshed attention to the issues at hand.

We can teach little kids active coping strategies by literally talking them through problems they might face, whether it’s rivalry with a sibling, difficulties making friends, dealing with a teacher or learning how to multiply. We can help them discover their own outlets for their frustration and give them a place to be creative. What we shouldn’t do is always turn on the TV or turn on the computer and get lost in the pixels of virtual play.

Most importantly, we need to model these active coping strategies for them. If we constantly lose our tempers, turn to alcohol or gambling or the television when life gets tough, we are showing them how to handle their own problems. And our kids are paying very close attention.

So if your child comes home from school in a foul mood, and they don’t want to talk about it, you might not want to push it. Depending on their age, you might suggest a walk together, whip up a batch of cookies or let them go up to their room and talk it through with their friends. But encourage them to do something.

As an investment in our children, teaching resilience has a guaranteed payoff.