Tweens and Gratitude, Or More Accurately: I Can’t Seem to Get this Right

I knew that around Christmas it would make sense to write about tweens and gratitude. I have been very confident in my previous posts, secure in what I had to say and focused on how to say it. This is not one of those posts. In fact, I may have more questions than answers by the end of this, and I’m actually hoping that you, dear reader, will share some of your wisdom as well.

I married my husband when I was 19 and he had just turned 21. We were both still in college and working to support ourselves. In other words, we were broke. We experienced a solid few years of squeaking by each month, living in a tiny apartment, sharing one car, and eating way too many ramen noodles. Since we are now a healthy distance from these starving student and just-starting-out newlywed days, I can tell you that I am so glad we went through those lean times. It makes us appreciate everything we have now so much more. After years of hauling laundry to a questionable Laundromat, I don’t claim to love laundry, but I am grateful to have a washer and dryer of my own.

When our waterbed broke (hey, it was the 90s, lots of people had waterbeds), our only choice was to toss the plastic mattress and sleep in the wooden frame of the box with whatever blankets we could stack up. After several months, we were saved from that setback when my parents visited and we “let” them sleep in our bed. In the morning, my dad came out and announced that he felt like he had slept in a coffin, and no daughter of his would sleep like this anymore. My parents, who knew that we needed to learn to make it on our own, made an exception and bought us a new mattress. We have never relished a gift so much – we couldn’t wait to go to sleep each night!

Fast forward a decade or two. We have worked hard to complete our educations, establish careers, and are happy suburbanites with a teenage daughter. And she just doesn’t get it. She has no true understanding of how easy her life is, and how difficult the lives of other children are. Here’s the thing: I can’t recreate the experience of being broke for her. We live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood, and we have everything that we need. We have no intention of depriving her meals or not buying her the things that she needs, so she can’t truly know what barely getting by looks like at this age.

She is certainly spoiled by world standards, with her tech gadgets, excessive ‘stuff,’ and constant (not free) outings with friends. By neighborhood standards, she is pretty well in check. I don’t buy her clothes from the expensive mall stores, she doesn’t get to buy school lunch every day (these are not the high school meals that I grew up with, there are fast food franchises in the building), and she doesn’t get her nails professionally done every 2-3 weeks like many of her friends.

My husband and I have had countless discussion over the years with each other and our family and friends asking this question: How can you teach gratitude to kids? I am a stickler for thank you notes; she sits and writes one out for every gift she gets. We have taken the time to point out the work that people have done to make parties and other events we attend so nice. And as many of you would suggest, we do a lot of volunteer work. Food pantries, homeless shelters, and even making care kits for the sign-holding people on freeway exits. She is learning that it is important to serve your community and those less fortunate, but this does not translate to a deep understanding that it could be us who need help. We’ve all heard the statistic about how many paychecks away most of us are from losing everything. It’s scary, but pretty unfathomable to a teenager who has never made a mortgage payment.

And there is a distinct difference between not being spoiled and having a spirit of gratitude. Here’s a recent example that let me know her expectations aren’t completely unreasonable. Her friend dropped and cracked his phone. She told me “his mom went out the NEXT DAY and had it fixed for him.” I asked what she said to him about that, and she said “I told him when I cracked my phone, my parents said ‘have fun using your new, cracked phone.’” This made us chuckle. Here’s the thing, she wasn’t in trouble for cracking her phone, it wasn’t intentional. But she had it out in the busy halls of school and wasn’t paying attention. We decided that she wouldn’t appreciate how nice it is to have an un-cracked phone and take the steps to maximize the odds of not cracking it until she had to live with the crack for a while. So we made sure she had a screen protector on it so she didn’t get cut, and she used it that way for about 6 months. She was over the moon when we had it repaired, and she researched the best reasonably priced phone cases herself. She is noticeably more careful with her phone.

Yay, right? I love that she knows we are the parents who will not replace the items she breaks if she is not being 100% responsible. And she did demonstrate gratitude for the repaired phone. But I can’t say that this translates to everything else in her life. She still thinks we should upgrade her phone every time a new model comes out, she thinks she should own every new style of Nikes, and she will never understand why we don’t eat out most nights of the week.

So this is where I am stuck. I just listed a bunch of things that we think we are doing right. But I still have the sense that true gratitude is lacking in this wonderful girl of mine. And she is wonderful. She is a sweet, funny girl who tries her best at everything. So what are we missing? I really would love to hear what your experiences are with your children, and what you do to try to get them to be grateful for the life they are privileged to live. I’m starting to think that the best we can hope for is that she does not feel entitled to the latest and greatest in everything. I’d even settle for her at least knowing that she will not be getting the latest and greatest, and to stop asking, whether she really understands why or not. Is true gratitude unattainable until she is on her own and struggling a bit? Is it an inherent personality trait?

I’m thinking I should refer to this as more of a plea than a post, but I hope that I am writing about something that resonates with all of us. And perhaps the more ideas we share, and the more broad and comprehensive our approach, the better chance we have of raising a more grateful generation. I just heard my dryer ding, so I am gratefully heading downstairs in my comfortable home to retrieve the warm clothes that I am so happy to have!

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