The first time my son stopped me, and I mean seriously stopped me by putting his little hand on my arm to be sure he had my full attention to say thank you, I turned to goo. We’ve worked to teach the boy manners, to say please and thank you, so I wasn’t surprised by the words. I was surprised because it was clear that there was sentiment behind the words. It wasn’t just a rote call and return. It was in his voice, it was in his face, it was brimming in his eyes. He was expressing real gratitude.
That expression made me start to think about how gratitude is learned, and earned, and it gave me pause. Something had happened in his skin that had changed him, and something—whether it was repetition, or a lesson at school that clicked, or just seeing it around the house had made a light bulb go off in his brain, and he understood what it meant to feel thankful and say the words with the weight of that emotion behind them.
Gratitude can be tricky. It’s easy to expect thanks, but it doesn’t always feel safe to offer it. Gratitude has to come from a place of security. I think about the number of times someone has done something for me, and what I’ve felt is dread, or grudging obligation, or embarrassment, or even fear. Instead of gratitude, how many times have I felt sheer anxiety? True gratitude lays you bare—leaves you vulnerable, and exposed with the admission that you had a need, and it took another human to fill it. That’s scary. And it is wonderful when you realize you can express it freely.
I see parents and parental figures talking about their ingrate children. Kids who expect, who are entitled, and who demand. These parents seem to believe they are owed thanks. I don’t believe parents are owed anything. We (hopefully) are the adults who chose to bring these children into the world biologically, or into our lives through adoption, or marriage/partnerships. The children didn’t ask to be born, or engrafted, or stepped into our families. The children have little to no autonomy, and can only be as grateful, respectful, and loving as they’ve been taught to be. They can only be as grateful, respectful, and loving as they feel safe being.
We’re so hard on these little people (and bigger, smellier teenaged people), whose brains aren’t even fully formed. We expect, we demand, we tell them we are entitled to their love, their respect, and their gratitude (with just as much lip curling as they give us)—but what are we doing to earn that?
Kids are like bread. They start off with raw ingredients, and you work those ingredients together, then you let them rise and grow. Then, you work them some more, and you let them rise and grow. You keep working those ingredients, kneading, rolling, squeezing, handling, patting, mushing back into the mold, keeping warm and dry, or cool and damp, until it’s time to bake. Hopefully, by the time you get your dough into the oven, it’s in good shape so that when it comes out, it’s nicely shaped and edible. But it’s everything to do with what you have, or have not put into it, and the attention you’ve paid it as you prepared it for the oven.
The bread is only as good as what you put into it—only as good as the environment and conditions in which it is made.
Be kind to your little loaves. That’s the only way they are going to be able to feel safe enough to open up that vulnerable place of thanks.