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.