The Riddle of Ingratitude

Teaching Gratitude

My wife tells me that I should include more stories from my personal journey in my writing. I admit, it’s a little tricky for me. First, there’s the always-terrifying vulnerability required. Second, my training in philosophy gets in the way. In academia, references to one’s biography as evidence for a broader point is largely frowned upon. Cool logic and sound reason are required; anecdotes and object lessons are circumstantial, at best. And the absolute WORST thing you can do is appeal to someone’s emotions. Egad! But… this is not an epistemology course and I’m not interested in constructing the perfect syllogism- I want to confess and be known to those who will hear me, for both our sakes. In that spirit, I offer these words…

The back seat of a station wagon. This is where the bulk of the story takes place. One of those old buckets, burnished in burgundy and beechwood. It was a time machine, a rolling motel, and getaway car, all rolled into one. A good man in my town backed it off a flat-bed 18-wheeler and into the driveway outside our one-bedroom efficiency. “Heard you might need a car”, he said. It might have been a flaming chariot, with Pegasus under rein, and its appearance could not have been more miraculous to us. My mother, brother, and I had fallen on hard times. For our purposes here, it doesn’t matter how we got there. Suffice it to say we were crippled by a debt we didn’t run up and crushed by a hope that never materialized.

In that long season of tribulation, food was sometimes in short supply. On one particular occasion, the outlook for supper had turned very bleak. The cupboards were bare; the fridge was a sepulcher. As the clocked ticked ever closer to dinner time, I could see the panic build in my mother’s face. “Set the table,” she said. My brother and I obeyed, mostly out of curiosity, and set up the folding card table we used for meals. Once the settings were prepared, we all sat down in silence. “Okay, let’s bless the meal,” came next. It was either too bold or too desperate of a plea to deny. At the time, I could not tell which. “Lord, we thank you for your goodness”… knock, knock, knock. “Stay here, boys.” Answering our door at the time wasn’t always a simple enterprise. Mama opened the door, cried out in a loud voice, and collapsed in the doorway. There, on the concrete stoop outside our door, were dozens and dozens of grocery bags jam-packed to the top. If you, dear reader, are incredulous at this tale then please consider how unbelievable it was to us. There were so many items that we literally could not store them all in our meager kitchenette. We meticulously unpacked each sack as children opening Christmas packages, the greatest game of show and tell I’ve ever played.

After the shock had settled and the wares were put away, we sat back down at that same table we had set in mime- now brimming with feast- and finished the prayer.

Fast forward to yesterday…

I picked up the kids from school and we headed to the tire shop. We had picked up a nail in the alleyway and needed a replacement. After the man looked it over and gave me an ETA, me and the kiddos started out on a search for ice cream. We landed in fro-yo heaven. A clean, cool place to sit after our walk in the afternoon heat, each of us enjoying our own concoction. We dished about the schoolday and watched a little TV. The tire man called and said they were finished. I called an Uber to take us back. As I stood at the counter paying for the new tire, I heard a commotion in the lobby. It was my child. He was beside himself because he couldn’t have any candy from one of those 25 cent machines. Full stop.

I cannot describe the admixture of sorrow and rage that I feel in those moments– the ones where the children take it all for granted. It hurts me in a way far beyond all others. “Do you not remember, child, the cool of that room that we just left, the taste of that treasure we just consumed? Do you not know, my precious one, that we just paid for a new tire that we can actually afford… for a reliable vehicle that we’ve already paid off?” I know they are little. I know it. But, I cannot help but feel as though this is the greatest challenge I face as a parent to kids who have plenty:

How can they be full of thankfulness when they’ve never known hunger?

Why should they quiver with glee at delights a dime-a-dozen?

I don’t know the answer, in sum. But I do know this part- I am assured of this one thing:

You MUST, at some crucial juncture, introduce your child to suffering.

Whether they are visited by it personally or are exposed to it in the plight of others around them– it is a necessary ingredient for rendering souls who are attuned to gratitude. It is a complicated business, a riddle with which all parents must wrestle, how to protect their innocence and protect them FROM it, all at once. I proffer no great strategic insight, only this final observation:

A little boy crying at a vending machine for the next treasure, the latest gotten good already fallen dead in his mouth.

…This is a grand metaphor for the bottomlessness and insatiability of the thankless heart.

Greed and ingratitude are the greatest sorts of poverty. They render you hungry again in the time it takes to put down your fork.

I don’t want to teach them gratefulness so they can be good. I just don’t want them to be poor.

I’m interested to hear how you guys are teaching your kids about gratitude. See the┬ácomments section below.

If you liked “Teaching Gratitude”, please consider sharing it.

'Teaching Gratitude' have 8 comments

  1. September 23, 2015 @ 2:14 PM Jannette Mullen

    Bret, I believe this is the best that you have ever given your readers. Poverty truly comes with different faces and from different places and truly often not born from lack. True thankfulness can make you a very happy person. This lesson does not come easy but worth the effort at all cost.


  2. September 23, 2015 @ 3:02 PM Melissa

    let me start by saying that I’ve had similar thoughts while raising my own kids. I wasn’t raised with the same experience and perspective that you have, but my experiences as a kid definitely taught me, the value of being frugal, not wasting anything- and that you definitely don’t get everything that you want- and to be OK with that. It is hard lesson to teach little guys like yours. Start by giving away toys that they don’t use anymore, having them take to a children’s home or shelter. Let them see you forgo something that you “want” for the sake of something more charitable. Age appropriate discussion of situations, experiences, news stories that you see or read everyday. By the time they are 12 ish, you can find many hands on volunteer experiences that you can do with all of them. It’s a soup of building and etching compassion. Well – I’m sure you knew all of this already. I LOVED this blog post- maybe one of my favorites so far.


    • November 17, 2015 @ 12:41 PM Bret Spears

      I know I said this on Facebook already, but I really appreciated this response. My sincere thanks, Missy.


  3. September 23, 2015 @ 8:51 PM AK Mom

    I grew up in a third world country where our food was rationed. We grew our own vegetables and fruit and also raised poultry so that we don’t go hungry.

    I tell this story to our only child and we also volunteer at the Food Bank, Children’s Lunch Box and others.

    This is how we show our child what struggles others have and teach her humility and compassion and also gratitude.


    • November 17, 2015 @ 12:40 PM Bret Spears

      These are wonderful, practical suggestions. Thanks!!


  4. October 1, 2015 @ 8:26 AM Laura

    Gratitude involves seeing the world as bigger than ourselves. It requires knowing that we need other people . It requires knowing that we live by the grace of God. We live in a culture that is embarrassingly self absorbed , where the individual is infected by a grandiose sense of self importance and entitlement. A perpetual state of toddlerhood in grown up bodies is what we call “Reality T.V.” Celebrity divorces and bad behavior of professional athletes take over headlines. Ungratefulness and selfishness are the default setting for all of us.

    Teaching the practice of gratitude through involving kids in charity and giving is very important. Giving is so important because it teaches lessons on all levels. We think it is a blessing to give-and it is- but it also a blessing for people learn to receive with gratitude. This is not to say by any means that the giver is above the receiver-rather, they are all part of a huge parable that has meaning for us all. Giving and receiving are both gifts. We will all be receivers at some point. The older I get, the more I realize that not that many things are very important…..but those few things are profoundly important. They are the things that attach us to man and to God. I am grateful for these things and being able to receive them.

    As valuable as it is to teach lessons of gratitude, I think that is the water for the plant. I think the gratitude has to sprout from within. and all of us are probably in infancy as far as how we nurture it. Valuing people over conveniences, realizing that all human life is immensely valuable, and knowing that relationships are the only legacy worth leaving- these are so important. But as I grow in gratitude, being that gratitude is an exponential thing- I think that my sense of gratitude springs from the simple realization that God loved me before I loved Him. Parents need to create the right example and environment for these lessons-particularly valuing people over things-and admitting that we need-actually need- other people, but there is a point where they will be figuring out gratitude for themselves, as we all did, and it is sown by our own concept of our place in the universe. Here is the bittersweet helplessness of parenting; that our children are not us and we cannot teach them everything. We can, however, love them unconditionally and model lives of generosity and kindness, and have all expectations that they will grow in gratitude throughout their lives.
    I believe that one cannot be truly alive without gratitude. It is really the great equalizer and levels the playing field for all of us.

    Thanks for your excellent topics!


    • October 1, 2015 @ 1:02 PM Laura

      To clarify, the “sweet” part of parenting is that our children are themselves, new and unique people. The “bitter” is that we cannot just hand them all the truth we have gleaned from our own struggles.


    • November 17, 2015 @ 12:39 PM Bret Spears

      “Here is the bittersweet helplessness of parenting; that our children are not us and we cannot teach them everything.”

      This is positively profound. Some fantastic thoughts here, Laura.


Would you like to share your thoughts?

Your email address will not be published.

The Dad Issues | Copyright 2015 | Powered by Dapper Fox Creative