399. Gratitude

This is an easy time in my life to write about gratitude. (December, 1996) I’m presently overflowing with gratitude. At least four hundred people have chipped in to make my life easier, and as a result, I was able to buy a condiminium and some other things that will help me manage MS. I’ll be able to spend more of my time and energy writing and teaching, because I’ll be spending less of it trying to wash my dishes, cook my meals, and so on.
One of my benefactors sent a letter with his gift, in which he asked me not to be too grateful. I think I know what he meant – that I shouldn’t feel guilty, unworthy, or embarrassed. And with some difficulty, I did manage to keep those feelings at bay. But not feeling grateful was beyond me. I will feel gratitude for the rest of my life, which will probably be longer and more joyful because of the gifts I’ve received.
When we do things for people, ideally we don’t do them to get people to be grateful. We’re not supposed to think about that much. When a gift is given with too heavy an emphasis on the expectation of gratitude, it doesn’t feel like a pure gift; the giver hasn’t really let go of it. It’s the gift that keeps on taking.
But we do teach children to say “thank you” when they receive gifts. It’s very common, after a child receives a gift, to hear an adult say, “What do you say?” And the child is supposed to answer, “Thank you.” I once heard a very young child answer, “Excuse me,” confusing gratitude with a burp. But the child had the right idea – that there’s some words you’re supposed to say in order to be socially graceful, even if you’re not quite sure what the words are all about.
When we want to teach children skills, or get them to know things, we can be pretty direct about it. We can rely pretty well on immediate feedback. It’s hard for a child to pretend he/she can do something, or knows something. There are all kinds of strategies teachers have developed to help children learn, and afterwards, to make sure they really have learned. Such teaching is still work – sometimes quite challenging work – but at least it’s somewhat direct.
But it’s not as easy to teach children about gratitude. I think this is yet another place for modelling. Children want to know how to grow up, and while we can tell them some strategies, and train them, some aspects of growing up can only be taught effectively through modelling. We have to be sure children see us expressing gratitude when we feel it. When we ask children, “What do you say?”, expecting them to answer, “Thank you,” we’re teaching a social grace that can help them in society. But I think we have to teach gratitude by modelling it.

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