The Gift of Gratitude

When I was working as a Parent Educator, I always liked to introduce the topic of teaching children gratitude around the Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays. I will be doing that again this Wednesday as I teach parents in a class with which I have been blessed in retirement. Gratitude is one of those attitude virtues that parents think children are somehow going to acquire as we meet their needs and give them gifts. But this is far from the truth. Gratitude must be taught and the point of my introducing the topic was to offer parents strategies to teach their children. It pays off in so many ways – children who are not grateful often grow up onto their adult lives feeling “privileged”, a quality that irritates parents and can get in the way of success in the world. If a person has expectations that the good things in life are handed to them, they are less likely to work for what they want because they believe they are entitled to have these things given to them.  In addition, researchers have found that gratitude is the ingredient most needed for true happiness. Without gratitude, one always feels a sense that one does not have enough, that there is more that they need to be happy. I believe that gratitude is central to a healthy spirituality.

Here are some ideas for parents about fostering gratitude in children that have come up in my classes over the years:

  1. Model gratitude. Speak often about the fact that you are thankful for the blessings of life.
  2. Include gifts given to you, but also for the gifts of nature and for the goods and services that are provided for you as well as the gifts and services you provide. “I am so grateful that I have the time and health to give to the Foodshelf.   It feels good to help others and I love meeting the nice people that come.”
  3. Show children how to express gratitude. “Thank you” should be one of the first phrases toddlers learn.  Have them write thank you notes, a practice that has fallen away over the years. Even a toddler can put a scribble on a piece of paper that you have written on.
  4. Express gratitude even for what seems to be negative in life. “I am disappointed we can’t go on our picnic because of the rain, but I am grateful for that the birds and trees have water to nourish them.”
  5. Make giving thanks a regular part of prayer and ritual. Give thanks at meals and at bedtime. For special events, make giving thanks a part of the celebration. Birthdays – make it a practice to express reasons to be thankful for the person being honored. Holidays – gratitude for country or for the sacrifice of our soldiers, gratitude for the contribution of a person in history whose birthday we  celebrate. Expressing gratitude for the life of someone who has died can ease the pain of loss. Special family events such as wedding and religious celebrations are times to express gratitude.
  6. Overindulging children can counter an attitude of gratitude. Limit the gifts for the holidays and birthdays. For things children want between the normal gifting events, help them to work and save for what they want. Working for things raises their awareness that all things in life are not free as well as building skills for providing for their needs in the future. Avoid responding to sudden, temporary whims, such as begging in the toy department of a store. It has been tested and found true that giving in to such whims only gives children reason to continue “begging” in the future. One of my students said that it took three months to break her children of the begging habit once she and her husband decided not to indulge their kids when they were shopping.
  7. Encourage children to pass on toys and clothing they no longer need. There are countless organizations that will take these, but giving a toy they’ve outgrown to a neighbor child or a younger cousin enables them to actually see the face of the recipient.

These are only a few ideas. There are many others. Teaching gratitude to our children is itself one of the most precious gifts parents can give to their children.

Creating out of Chaos

I have been commenting on a book by Quaker Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak. Yesterday I wrote about depression and the need to go down deep to discover the true self as created by God.  Having gone there himself, Palmer lists five “shadow-casting monsters.” I identified with each of them in some way, but the one that really helps define me is the fourth: fear, especially of chaos in one’s life. My husband Bernie, in more recent years when he felt safe to speak, told me that I am a controller. “Well,” I said in defense “someone has to be in control.” My implication was that if I left things up to him, our life would be a mess.

Palmer nailed me when he wrote, “Many of us – parents and teachers and CEOs-are deeply devoted to eliminating all remnants of chaos from the world. We want to organize and orchestrate things so thoroughly that messiness will never bubble up around us.”

Wow! I remember how difficult, that is, impossible, for me to accept the sibling rivalry in our home. When I later studied parenting, I learned that the more we interfere with siblings fighting, the less they learn about dealing with differences, compromise and making amends. I learned some excellent skills parents can use to help children move through their differences and to teach the values that are important to them. I guess I can forgive myself. I did not have this information as I was raising my four.

Palmer offers a deeper take on the importance of chaos. “The insight received  (from the inner journey) is that chaos is the precondition to creativity: as every creation myth has it, life itself is emerged in the void.” (My artist daughter would love this.) Parker goes on: “Even what has been created needs to return to chaos from time to time so that it can be regenerated in more vital form.”

This makes me think of putting together a piece of equipment or the proverbial Christmas morning toy. Sometimes, we come to a point when we realize that we have put things together in such a way that what is supposed to work doesn’t. I can still remember the day my grandson Charlie was trying to change his transformer guy into the truck that was meant to be. He cried as he threw the toy across the room. I sat with him and tried to work backwards with this piece of plastic which was a total mystery to me. He had to go back to almost the beginning of the transformation process from super-strong-man so he could begin again. With a patience I would not have had with my own kids, he was able to help the toy become what its designer intended.

I think this is true in life, at least in mine. We can’t redo what we have done. Life doesn’t work that way. But we can sometimes work backward to discover where we made wrong decisions or where we acted too hastily. With patience and kindness to ourselves, we can begin the process of recreating. In the case of parenting, I cannot change what I may have done to my children, but I can be much improved parent to my adult children, I can be a different kind of grandmother, I can share my newfound wisdom with others, I can make amends…all this and more.

Lest I sound like a woman who beats herself up, let me add that once I was able to deal with my shortcomings as a mother, I began to remember the good things I did as a parent. When Charlie started

Parenting and Image of God

Awkward!  A while back, someone gave me a short writing entitled “Why Is It so Important to Change Our Image of God?” I had the presence of mind to write the source on the bottom of the page: “Good Goats”. The writing was thought provoking and I imagined that I could find it on the internet and then paste and copy it for blog readers. When I searched the internet, however, I found that the piece is actually a chapter from the book, Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God by Dennis Linn, Sheila Fabricant Linn, and Matthew Linn. So much for short-cuts.

The excerpt was given to me by a person who is like-minded when it comes to our sense of God. Like me, he had received his image of God as a child in the Catholic Church and had to unwind himself from one belief about God in order to be open to another. The authors take this transition to another level in that they show a link between one’s perception of God and the way one lives in the world.

I have had two careers in my life, one as a coordinator of religious educator and the other as a parent educator. The former required me to have a degree in religious studies, the latter in child and family studies.  Even after I completed my formal education, I continued to read and, over time, I began to notice a definite link between what people believe about God and what they believe about parenting.

The Linns use the example of marriage. “The more a couple experiences God as a lover, the more likely they are to enjoy a wholesome, loving marriage (which) extends to all aspects of marriage including sexual fulfillment.” Citing a study done among those who choose celibate religious life (David Nygren and Miriam Ukeritis), they write, “The most caring were four times more likely to image God as a caring healer than their less caring peers.” They shared Andrew Greely’s finding that that the more we experience God as a lover, the more sensitive we are to social justice.

Continuing the discussion on social justice: “The Roman Catholic Bishops recently issued a pastoral on the economy which says that wealth or goods cannot be divided on the basis of what we merit through our work. Rather, they must be divided on the basis of what we need.” Then the link is made: “If we have a vengeful, punishing God who calculates on the basis of our work… we will probably choose an economic system that is also based on merit. We can easily say to those who have less, ‘To hell with you, we earned it.’” On the other hand, when one believes in a God who “gives generously free gifts to those working only an hour (Mt. 20:1-16), and even to unrepentant sinners solely because they need it, then (one is) likely to choose an economic system based less on merit and more on need.”

The third example of this human/divine link offered is that of capital punishment. “If we believe God gives up on people forever and does away with them by sentencing them to death in hell, then we can give up on some people forever and do away with such people by sentencing them to death through capital punishment. Or, I’d add, by dismissing or disowning them in one way or another.

The Linns don’t talk about parenting in their piece, but in my mind, the link between image of God and parenting is even more obvious. Those familiar with the Bible know that a large portion  presents God as a father figure and in the Old Testament story of his forming a people, we see that any actions contrary to his law are considered acts of rebellion worthy of severe punishment. There is more than a theoretical link when it comes to parenting. There are passages that directly admonish parents to be severe with their children and children are meant to accept such punishment and honor the parents who dole it out. Doesn’t it follow that a person faithful to a harsh God would want to emulate this God and follow God’s teachings in the scriptures? The opposite is true. Parents who are gentle and accepting of their children and are quick to forgive are more likely to believe in a loving, forgiving God.

My belief in the parenting/God link is not just based on my studies. I have learned a lot from the families that I encountered in my church work and from the parents I taught in parenting education classes. But my real conviction is gut level.  My husband and I were both raised believing in a God of judgment and retribution. While I did not use corporal punishment as a mother, I believed what I was taught – that children are bad and rebellious by nature. I saw my role as convincing them that they were such. This belief was reinforced when I left the Catholic Church for a time to join groups who believed in a literal interpretation of the Bible. It took a long time for me to change my beliefs about parenting, but it did change parallel to the change in my image of God. I suspect that if you were to ask each of my four children about the kind of mother I was, their responses would be quite different. They were not aware of the spiritual growth happening during those years.

I am done parenting children but I have been given the gift of many grandchildren. Their main caregivers are their parents, of course, but because my image of God has changed, I am present to them in a much different way. For me, changing my image of God was more dramatic than the word “important” shows. For me it as dramatic as is moving from death to life.

Parenting and Passing on Beliefs

I have had a few conversations lately about parenting. When people my age get together, the topic often comes up with the statement: “I wish I’d known then what I know now.” This is often said in jest, but when we reflect in seriousness, we have to admit that we may have hurt others along the way of our learning. We may have taught truths that we later found to be untrue. In the case of our children, they believed us, their primary teachers and, as adults, they may continue to believe what we taught them – even when our beliefs have changed. Looking down upon the generations coming up behind us, it can be pretty painful to see the outcome of these mistaken beliefs and worse, to see the beliefs being handed on to our grandchildren.  It is no wonder that older people pray a lot. My prayer is often: “Please, God, don’t make their learning new truths be painful.” But, it seems that the way of pain is the only way to move from one belief to a new one.

When my children were young, I was immersed in a belief system that one would call evangelical or fundamentalist. It isn’t so much the theology that concerns me here, but rather, the way that theology translated into my parenting. I say, “my parenting” because the spiritual journey is one I took on my own. My husband was on a different path. It took years for our paths to converge. When the kids were young, I was the one who took them to vacation bible school and read them bible stories. Bernie sometimes tagged along but mostly let me do my own thing. He was closer to the truth than I was, I see that now.

I want to address two particular aspects of the theology I held during those years: original sin and salvation through the cross. We (myself and others under this particular umbrella) believed that we are all born with a seriously sinful nature and destined for hell. This is the reason, by the way, that Catholics moved baptism into infancy to the point that they couldn’t wait to get their child baptized. The Church later came up with a doctrine to pacify parents – limbo, not heaven, not quite hell, a fairly happy place, we hoped.

When one believes children are burdened with a condition that God cannot stand to even look upon, a parent’s main objective is to see to it that their children hear the “good” news of salvation, confess their “sins” and accepts Jesus into their lives. Of course, accepting salvation has a prerequisite. Namely, one must admit that they are full of sin. So one of a parent’s duties is to help a child see their sinfulness. Thus we told our children in innumerable ways how bad they were, that they fell short of our (God’s) expectations.

I remember being involved in a program called “Child Evangelism Fellowship” during those years. We gathered children wherever we were invited to tell bible stories to children using flannel figures that we placed on a board. We taught them catchy little songs to help them remember the stories and the message of the Savior. I remember one song that makes me cringe today:  “My heart was black as sin, until the savior came in. His precious blood, I know, has washed me white as snow.” We were making sure these children felt plenty sinful so that we could then offer them the invitation to accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior.

People can carry this sense of being bad and falling short throughout their whole lives. We know that even those who seem confident and are achieving great things in the eyes of the world often are compensating for this sense of inadequacy. What looks like an adult with a good self esteem may be a cover-up for a wounded child.

As I studied child development in preparation for being a parent educator, I came to understand how children learn and the gradual development of conscience. I saw that inappropriate behaviors in small children were normal for their age and they had to be taught appropriate behaviors without damaging their little egos. During my studies and later as I taught parenting, the feeling of wishing I’d known then what I know now was deeply painful.

I was able to forgive myself when I realized that I, too, was a wounded child raised by my parents who were wounded. Both of my parents had spiritual awakenings later in life. My mother had her awakening when she finally surrendered after years of struggling with alcohol and became a member of Alcoholics Anonymous.  My father followed as he experienced the 12 step program of Alanon. They changed dramatically after that, but by then my brothers and I were off into our own lives starting to have families. I cannot speak for my brothers, but for me, it was the beliefs my parents passed on to me that I carried into my own parenting. The church which my parents and Bernie’s parents faithfully attended reinforced these beliefs. Changing those beliefs happened when we could see the harmful effects of those beliefs on us, on our children and the world. It has been a long grueling process to find freedom, let me tell you.

I have tried to share in my blogs a new way of experiencing God as a loving Father, which is the way Jesus experienced God. When I write, I often hope that my children read my blogs. I rarely call their attention to these blogs. I have this weird belief that the people who read my blog on any given day are the ones who are supposed to hear the message. I don’t feel I should be tampering with God’s plan which keeps me from promoting myself as a blog writer. Not everyone would agree that this is a good idea – I am not so sure myself.

But even if my children did read the blogs I have written with them in mind one cannot escape the process of changing one’s beliefs. It is hard work. It can get ugly. Words of explanation can help, but these are mostly understood only after some life experience ha s slapped one upside the head.

Modesty…Read This

I decided to share a link to an article my son shared on Facebook this morning. I hope you read it. Keep in mind that my son has 16 children, seven of whom are boys. It is the best article I have ever read on the topic of modesty. It is so good that I hate to comment lest I diminish it:



Children as a Path to Serenity

Eileen Flanagan, in her book The Wisdom to Know the Difference, suggests that knowing oneself is primary in one’s search for wisdom. She offers several tools for this important endeavor – meditation, self-help programs and she highlighted 12 step programs, children, people, the aging process, memory of one’s own childhood and family experience, body, dreams and 6th sense.

Listing children separately from people is not to imply that children are not people. In her section dedicated to children, Flanagan was actually talking about one’s own children who have a power in our lives that other children are not likely to have. She was talking about how the experience of being a parent can prod, or actually force, one to look at themselves. I appreciated coming across this section this morning because on Facebook the other day, my son posted a published piece that slammed the idea of having children. My son and his wife have 16 children so you can imagine his and Wendy’s reaction.

I agreed with all that Chris said in his response, but my main objection to the woman’s article was what I often see people do: take one’s own life choice and somehow thinking it should be the choice of everyone. Also, taking one’s own life choice and putting a value on it as superior to others.  Both lead, whether intentionally or not,  to bashing and demeaning others. I am one who believes that we each need to seek God’s will in our lives and that may be much like the status quo or quite the contrary. Thus, as it says in the Serenity Prayer, we each need “the wisdom to know the difference”.

I’d like to share the paragraph from Flanagan’s book where she addresses the gift of children and then add a couple of my own ideas:

No one can be more blunt than young children, which is one of the reasons parenting can be such a rich spiritual path. My own two have a charming way of pointing out my flaws and inconsistencies, saying things like, “If you don’t want us to yell at each other, then you shouldn’t yell at us,” or, “You don’t want us to spend too much time on the computer, but you check your e-mail all the time.” While I’m not always grateful in the moment for such insight, I do know that motherhood has taught me more about myself than nearly anything else. Because I decided to stay home with my children when they were young, I was stripped of the crutches I had used to define myself-job, volunteer activities, even youthful figure. Sitting around home with baby drool on all my clothes made me wonder who I was in a deeper way. Losing patience with the tenth game of Candy Land illuminated the parts of me that aren’t very serene. Because young children live so in the present moment, caring for them can be an extended course in mindfulness.

It is the wisdom we call 20-20 vision that enables us to look back over the years and see that those life experiences that seemed to tie us down or get in the way when we were younger were actually the sources of our enrichment. Years of poverty, difficult relationships, having to put one’s education on hold for a time, missed opportunities, or setting a career aside to care of children…these are all fodder for growth. I myself chose to stay home with our children. When Heidi, our youngest, was preschool age, I started the journey of going back to school selecting my classes according to her time in school. I completed the process of getting the degree which led me into a career when she was in the 6th grade. It was a process I had to postpone and then take slowly if I were to see that my kids were cared for. My conviction was this: no matter what I have to offer the world, it is not of much value if I send a bunch of broken human beings into the world. Once I stepped into the work world, there were a whole new set of prods to my growth.

I am not one to tell others which path they should choose, whether to marry or not, whether to have children or how many, what religion to choose or not, where to live, what to do for work or service. Decisions are not easy, which is the point of Eileen Flanagan’s book. But we need to know that the Creator’s path for us may be what seems to be the more difficult choice at the moment. But speaking from someone with experience, God’s will for us is where we will find serenity.

Taking Care of Yourself

I am thrilled to be teaching parenting again. I am finishing up a year with parents of 3-year-olds attending Bethlehem Lutheran preschool in St. Cloud. Yesterday we talked about siblings and I was able to make use of a fantastic book on the topic that I used in my classes pre-retirement: Siblings Without Rivalry by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. The ideas the authors set forth for diminishing rivalry and fights between siblings are excellent and very workable. They are presented in two easy to read formats: lists and cartoons. They used the same format in their earlier work: How to Talk so your Children Will Listen and Listen so Your Children Will Talk. 

At one point, one mom said, “These ideas are great but how do you remember to use them in the heat of the moment when your kids are driving your crazy?” I told her and the group, “This is why it is so important to take care of yourself. If you are tired or overwhelmed, it is hard to be present, sane and loving to your children. Taking care of yourself is really an unselfish act. It is your gift to those who you love.”

This is a lesson I learned long after my children were growing up under our roof.