“There are starving children in Africa who would love your dinner! You should be grateful and eat it.”
“Just be glad you don’t have to dress like her.”
“I’m just glad I don’t have things as bad as him.”
Familiar sentiments? I suspect most of us have heard or uttered something very much along these lines. Maybe we said them to our kids or heard them from our parents. They are ideas aimed at assisting in gratitude. Right? That’s what they do?
While there is a sense in which we should be jarred into gratefulness by the reality that others have it worse than we do, these kinds of statements are a pretty horrid kind of instruction on gratitude. They teach comparison more than gratitude. And what about the kids in Africa? How are they supposed to grateful in this set up?
Building gratitude on the foundation of comparison is a structure doomed to crumble. All the mortar between the bricks isn’t, in fact, thankfulness. It’s superiority. I have something someone else doesn’t. I am something someone else isn’t. It is implicit arrogance that is being created and a false kind of gratitude. Your kids become thankful, not for the dinner served, but that they aren’t starving in Africa . . . which is right close to thinking they are better than those from Africa.
Gratefulness can’t be based on any sort of comparison between one person and another. It must be based on the reality of right expectations. What is reasonable to expect?
In truth, nothing. We deserve nothing. Everything we get is beyond what we deserve. And this is the reality which children need to grasp (along with the rest of us, who still get angry when we don’t get what we expect). We need to keep in mind our state as sinners and teach our children the same.
Gratefulness for something lends itself to comparison. But gratitude for something to someone changes the equation. All of a sudden our focus is on the goodness of the giver, and often on our dependence on him or on the undeservedness of the gift. And this is where we want our children to be: focused on the giver’s goodness.