Blairsville, GA. Recently I was with a friend whose oldest son, having just completed his junior year, is home from college. The young man has not yet found a summer job and, much to my friend’s chagrin, has been spending significant hours of the day just hanging around the house. “Why don’t you get a job waiting tables?” my friend asked the boy. “Dad, those jobs suck,” was the reply. The conclusion my friend drew: his son considers some jobs beneath his dignity. What’s more, this young man has not made much of an effort to help out around the house during his unemployment. In fact, my friend expressed some frustration that the boy leaves his dirty dishes in the sink, doesn’t take a hand in cleaning the house, and only cuts the grass when pestered. In short, he does not make any effort to contribute to the household economy. Ultimately, my friend was concerned that his son was profoundly ungrateful or at least acting in a way that does not reflect a grateful disposition.

What, if anything, can parents do to help cultivate this virtue? I want my boys to be grateful, for gratitude is a virtue that characterizes one who properly recognizes the giftedness of life. Few, if any, of the good things we enjoy are due exclusively to our own prowess, cleverness, or wit. This was the question to which we turned and, I must admit, the answers that presented themselves were not completely satisfying.

But first, a bit more diagnosis of the problem. My friend lamented that young people today seem to have a sense of entitlement. They think that what they have, and they have a lot, is exactly what they deserve. They have never known hardship, want, or the lack of any material thing. They have always had all they needed and have never expected anything less. When people have never known what it means to do without, they can easily develop a habit of mind that cannot even seriously imagine suffering from material depravation.

A sense of entitlement is due, at least in part, to the tremendous affluence enjoyed by our society. We middle class parents have enough money to provide regular meals for our families as well as multiple changes of clothes, multiple cars in the driveway, electronic appliances, family vacations, cable television, internet, I-pods, and cell phones. Parents, as well as their children, can become enamored with acquiring the latest gadget. Our lives can easily be consumed with acquiring things we convince ourselves we need.

Our commercial society, exemplified by but not limited to commercial television, plays an important role in this frantic lifestyle dedicated to getting more. We may watch television for the programs, but the programs exist to induce us to watch the commercials. And the commercials, if they are successful, create in us a profound sense of dissatisfaction. They remind us of all the things we don’t yet have. They seek to convince us that what we have is inadequate, outdated, and ill-equipped to make us as happy as we deserve to be.

Commercialism creates dissatisfaction—that, after all, is its purpose—and dissatisfaction is right next door to ingratitude. When we are unsatisfied with what we have, we are constantly thinking about how to acquire those things we think we need. When we are thus consumed, it is difficult to be grateful for the very things we wish so desperately to replace or supplement.

There are, I think, social and political consequences to ingratitude. If ingratitude induces a sense of entitlement in the young, it’s not a stretch to suggest that this same sense of entitlement will extend into adulthood and color the way we understand the function of government. Because the government has the deepest pockets, we can easily slip into seeing the state as the means by which our desires will best be sated. Our parents provided for our desires when we were young, and if we are not vigilant, we can be tempted to look to the government when the parental gravy train stops delivering the goods.

When our lives are oriented primarily toward acquiring new things, we will be less concerned with securing wealth to pass on to our children when we die. We will be less willing to give more than a token of our money and time to the poor among us. The ability to do without will diminish and our lack will chafe us, occupy us, and set the direction for our thoughts, our energies, and our purposes.

Ultimately, ingratitude leads us to forget God from whom all good things come.

How, then, can parents help to cultivate gratitude in their children? I suppose the first, and most important, step is to actively practice gratitude in our own lives. If we are consumed with acquiring, then we shouldn’t be surprised if our children are as well. If we routinely express our dissatisfaction with what we possess, then we should expect our children to develop the same view of the world.

One of my first impulses is to seek ways to make life more difficult for my three boys. I swore I never would, but recently I’ve found myself uttering things like “when I was your age, we just did without.” I suspect the lectures don’t have much effect. Would depriving them of some of the things they take for granted help them to appreciate those things more? Would skipping the occasional meal remind them to be grateful for the regular meals we eat? I have refused to buy my kids video games, I-pods, and cable television, but I’m not sure that has made them more grateful. When all of their friends have these things, it may simply produce more objects to crave.

Hard work comes to mind as at least a partial solution.  Now, I’m not sure that work, itself, makes one grateful, but I am convinced that a well-developed work ethic is a necessary condition for gratitude. Work helps one appreciate the price of things.  I can recall splitting and stacking huge piles of firewood when I was a kid and, if I wasn’t grateful for the assignment, I do recall being grateful when the job was finally done (and ironically, I did develop an affection for splitting wood). A sense of satisfaction accompanied the completion of the task. And I was clearly contributing to the success of the household. The work forced me out of my self-absorbed shell and into the wider world of a household economy to which I could contribute. Actively contributing to the household, rather than passively receiving, is an important step on the road to gratitude.

This, by the way, raises one of my concerns about suburbia: there is precious little regular work for children. Rural living, of course, provides a wide array of opportunities for work that can be engaged by everyone in the family. Even urban life provides the opportunity for a child to do some of the family shopping, for instance, and thereby contribute to the household economy. Suburban life, bereft of regular meaningful work for children, is perfectly suited to a life oriented toward consumption and thereby characterized by dissatisfaction and its spawn, ingratitude.

Helping those in need can, I think, serve to cultivate the disposition of gratitude. Some churches send youth groups to poor countries to construct building or do other kinds of manual labor as a way of serving those in need. It is true, I think, that encountering another society, where the most basic material things are scarce, can help remind young people to be grateful for all the things they take for granted. Indeed, one does not have to leave the country to find poor people in need of very basic necessities. The soup kitchen downtown, or the nursing home on the hill, or the struggling neighbor across the street all provide ample opportunities to help those who are in need of food, a listening ear, or work in the yard.

These methods of inducing gratitude in the young are not completely satisfying, but I think this much is true: Ingratitude is the offshoot of a habit of self-absorption. Gratitude is possible only when our attention turns outward to the world around us. When we see the good things in our lives as gifts, we are practicing gratitude. When we see our daily bread as the product of a bountiful creation, we open the door to gratitude toward God as well as the various hands that have cared for it along the way, from the farm to the table. Gratitude is a way of seeing the world that is impossible when our eyes and imaginations are turned inward. It is precisely this inward attention that induces dissatisfaction and closes off the possibility of living lives open to the world and grateful for our place in it.

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Mark T. Mitchell
Mark T. Mitchell teaches political theory at Patrick Henry College in Purcellville, VA. He is the author Michael Polanyi: The Art of Knowing and The Politics of Gratitude: Scale, Place, and Community in a Global Age (Potomac Books, 2012). He is co-editor of another book titled, The Humane Vision of Wendell Berry. Currently he is writing a book on private property. In 2008-9, while on sabbatical at Princeton University, he and Jeremy Beer hatched a plan to start a website dedicated to political decentralism, economic localism, and cultural regionalism. A group of like-minded people quickly formed around these ideas, and in March 2009, FPR was launched. Although he was raised in Montana and still occasionally longs for the west, he lives in Virginia with his wife, three sons and one daughter where they are in the process of turning a few acres into a small farm. See books written by Mark Mitchell.

14 COMMENTS

  1. Mark, this is as wise and as fine an essay as I’ve yet read on this site. I wish I had some additional wisdom to add to it, but I struggle with the same issues, looking at my four daughters and wondering how best to help them become people that will have a humble, not a self-focused and ungrateful, attitude towards the world. Church and family rules and work habits and more do their part, but the self-centering effects of modern life have to be continually combated, on all sides. So anyway, thanks very much for writing this; it’s an excellent and thought-provoking start to the week. I’ll have to link to it on my blog.

  2. Powerful post. Instilling this attitude in our children is an important mission, and I believe an increasingly harder one. In our house we keep a popular Shakespere quote on the fridge to remind us to be grateful:

    “O Lord that lends me life, lend me a heart replete with thankfullness.”

    It is with this attitude that Thanksgiving has become my favorite holiday for the message it is meant to convey.

  3. Mark, Thanks for this. It coincides with some things I’ve been pondering about my family’s life. It’s occurred to me that we live in our house like consumers rather than participants. We’ve been pondering building an addition to our house, thinking that would solve some of our problems with clutter,etc., (and it still might), but it suddenly dawned on me that we don’t even manage the house we have with sufficient attention and care! Why would we think having MORE house would make that better and not worse?

    Our story is not one of particular lapses… in fact, I’ve noticed many of my friends complaining about the same sorts of things… we clean only when company’s coming. We find ourselves avoiding real cooking, settling more often than we like for something processed and convenient, etc.

    All this is to say that there might be quite enough work around us, even in the suburbs, if we were to take the real work of household management, oikonomia, with its due gravity. What if we managed our homes well, clearing clutter, discerning things we like from things we need, practicing everyday virtues of stewardship. If there’s still not enough to do, grow a garden.

    I’ve realized that, if it will have any effect, I’ve got to lead by example. Children don’t respond well to a list of chores they have to do while parents, oh, I don’t know, blog. But my daughters happily (mostly) join me in the work of the house, if there’s a sense that something really needs doing and we can do it together.

    So great (or at least tortured young parental) minds think alike. Thanks again.

  4. Nice post. My children are not as old as yours and probably not as well raised (but thankfully I have time to try and change that) but I have noticed from raising my children that they tend to do as I or my wife does (and usually the bad from either of us is copied more than the good from either us). At an early stage are they not more of a reflection of our faults (which I am trying to stop them from having but it seems inevitable).

    If work is the basis for gratitude (and to a certain extent peace) is it my fault that I have not demonstrated this enough to them for them to see the reward for work. When I come home tired and play with them instead of mowing the yard (or filling in the ditch in my yard that has been there for 20 months) am I really hurting them or not? They are both to young to help with the ditch though I do get my daughter (almost 3 years old) to help in the garden every day that we have time and weather to do this.

    I especially wonder what I take for granted myself and do not truly appreciate. Last night our electricity went out for about 2.5 hours during a storm (in suburbia). I never really noticed the A/C until it was gone. I think appreciation sometimes comes from having something and then not having it. I know that work normally provides this as there are always some failures from work that everyone would like to do over (Like me and my stupid corn worms or smart ones as the case may be). I think adversity creates appreciation more than work.

    Having said that I am sure that each person and situation is unique to them. What motivates one child does nothing for the next.

  5. “This, by the way, raises one of my concerns about suburbia: there is precious little regular work for children.”–Mark M.

    Mark,

    We faced the same challenges when our children were growing up regarding gratitude for what we have as well as generosity towards those who are less fortunate. It’s a struggle because of the constant saturation from ads, social climbing acquaintances (not to mention their parents!) and the homogenization of income within each suburban development.

    Although the ‘burbs can be less than ideal for encouraging independence; work always needs to be done in a yard or house. Pets also need feeding, grooming and cleaning up after. Even a young child can do chores around the home with supervision.

    This is where most of us trip up. It is often easier to do the work ourselves than to work with and supervise a child…especially if we work and want our own “downtime” at home. However, the time lost watching TV, reading or blogging is worth the time spend with one’s children.

    An allowance is also helpful. Part of it should be “just because money” the remainder should be based on chores completed. Teaching the child to put 10% of the “gross total” in a family bank, to be used for a family charity project helps to impress upon him/her the necessity of “giving back” to others. Another 10% of the “net total” should be placed in a bank (controlled by Dad/Mom to be transferred to a savings account) This helps to delay gratification and impart patience. Doing this also teaches basic accounting, charitable giving and math…at a child’s level….or if you prefer..”bookkeeping, generosity and arithmetic”…all valuable skills.

    Vices are easy to acquire. Virtues are slowly acquired from an early age. They build upon the lessons learned from prior “victories” of doing the right thing vs. giving into the wrong behavior.

    Psst!…Your friend needs to take immediate and forceful action to rectify the situation in his home with his soon-to-be adult offspring! (I would suggest a complete cessation of credit card and vehicle privileges, gasoline money and unlimited food, laundry, etc). It is almost too late for this young man! ….JMHO

    (Hellooo … Jr.! Most “jobs” “suck” !!! That’s why Mummy and Daddy are paying for you to acquire the skills for a “career” or “profession” !!!)

  6. Please, let’s keep hammering at this theme on FPR; I am so fearful that my children will grow to become just like me as a teenager. No parent deserves that. I’m going to set to work compiling a list of family tasks and practices that might help us figure out how to solve this very real, i.e. we all know what Mark is talking about, problem. The first item will be, naturally, Kevin’s suggestion of planting a garden; isn’t it astonishing how few people do garden now? So much “landscaping” so little earth-planting. Where’s the ecofeminist indignation?!

  7. Re: Gardens

    As a parent of a 14 and 10 year old, I can honestly say that one of the best feelings I ever get is looking out the window to discover my daughters have stopped playing soccer in the backyard and are eating cherry tomatoes right off the vine. These are the same tomatoes that they helped plant 2 months prior.

    I am not a perfect father by a long shot but I DO feel like I am doing at least one thing right by getting my girls involved with growing some of our own food. My dad passed it on to me and my hope is that they will become third generation gardeners when they get older.

    * P.S. We have a 3 year-old yellow lab that also steals tomatoes right off the plant as well. He eats 3 or 4 per day once they start to come in. Beefsteak seem to be his favorite.

  8. Esmeralda,

    We do the 10% rule for charitable donations as well. We also require 10% for savings. I keep telling my oldest she will thank me when she has money for a car when she turns 16.

    As for charity, we let the kids pick their own charity to donate their money to. We have them make their donations once per year, usually around Christmas time. We also encourage them to not just send a check but to actually purchase something for the charity. This way they get to still have the fun of shopping with their money and it seems to send an effective message that giving can be an enjoyable experience. Both of them love animals so they usually call one of our local animal shelters and ask what they need and then go purchase it from the pet store.

  9. My father, child of the Depression, Marine, loyal son…he was never a demonstrative nor what I would call a softly affectionate man but he did share life’s most precious gift: A love of labor. I spent many an hour tagging along, mixing cement, digging ditches, uncoupling cockeyed plumbing to winterize the cabin, planting, weeding, mowing, hammering, fetching a wrench etc etc and it is in work that we found a timeless bond….that, and tossing a just-quaffed beer bottle onto the freshly mowed lawn just because it was ours and we could. This hug of craft and labor was as warm as those embraces enjoyed between my mothers arms. We might call this a Separation of Powers of the Family.

    I fell short of this with my son although he too knows he is happiest when doing something productive with his own hands….as do my ever-planning, ever-doing daughters.

    To labor is to have purpose and to know that life is work and so something one aspires to rather than escapes from. Our Modern Service Economy has created a vast charade that things can be gotten for nothing. Livin for the Weekend is a serious pursuit. As a result, more and more people will continue to be found standing around with less and less….under an accumulating pile of rubbish, physical and mental.

    Humans evolved their stunning cognitive abilities through a balance of doing and thinking. Today, in this vaunted yet essentially vapid “information Age, we do less of both and so it should come as no surprise that the downward curve will be far steeper and entirely more destructive. Not that this must be so but it seems to be the desired…… or shall we say defacto for its relativist surrender…….trend of most. Neo-Gnosticism…if this is indeed what is at work…. shall have it’s own factory of destruction , seeking a utopia we forgot we had already when we thought life a destination to grasp in perfection. Artificial Intelligence shall found its shining city on a hill and call it Artificial Existence. Everything will be perfect but there will be nothing there.

  10. I think the sense of entitlement you speak of is not just limited to children, but to our culture, in general. If the adults don’t model a life of gratitude, and come home in the evening complaining about their day, then we can’t expect kids to learn anything much different.
    One of the best ways to cultivate gratitude is through grace at the dinner table. For grace, go around the table and have each person answer the question, “Who helped me to have a good day today?” This helps children (and adults) reflect on their day with a sense of appreciation. We do this daily in our family and our kids jump at the chance to go first.

    The Power of Gratitude

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