No Fear

I Tried — And Failed — To Teach My Kids Gratitude

'Tis the season to be totally and completely off the wall.

Written by Molly Wadzeck Kraus
Originally Published: 
Sibling children quarrel and cry in back seat of car, older sister teases toddler in winter jacket a...
Natalia Lebedinskaia/Moment/Getty Images

It’s a familiar scene in my car: "I was talking first!" shouts my 2-year-old from the backseat as she tries to outshine her older siblings, ages 11 and 9. I tell them to ignore her, assuring the littlest she will have her turn to speak soon... but that she has to wait. I recognize the challenge of being the youngest, especially with an age gap. On the other hand, I worry about raising a spoiled tyrant. (It doesn’t help that her well-meaning siblings tend to give in to anything that will make the totally expected toddler behavior stop.) Often, I worry if I'm getting the balance right; I don’t want to raise kids who are unappreciative, impatient, or ungrateful.

It’s that last word that really stresses me out. I want to cultivate gratitude in my kids — something that feels particularly urgent every December, when we’re bombarded with consumerism. And I’ll be honest, sometimes I feel downright panicked about it. But a recent read is teaching me that I need to operate less from a place of worry, and more from a place of connection.

Curious about what exactly I should be doing to avoid raising a Veruca Salt, I reached out to Dr. Aliza Pressman, developmental psychologist, co-founder of the Mount Sinai Parenting Center, and host of the award-winning podcast Raising Good Humans. She said something that has really stuck with me: “I really want parents to have the opportunity to experience a more joyful parenting life by not operating from a fear base.” Her new book, THE 5 PRINCIPLES OF PARENTING: Your Essential Guide to Raising Good Humans, is a guide.

Talking to Dr. Pressman, I realized my grasp of gratitude, both in definition and understanding, was murky. I knew that I wanted to feel more joy in parenting, and I knew that I wanted to raise good, kind, well-adjusted adults. The piece I was missing was the importance of reframing from a fear-based mode to one centered on relationships and how to do that.

“Parents can't be open minded when they're fear-based, and neither can kids,” Dr. Pressman explains. “We want to encourage curiosity. We just have to reframe from worry to curiosity.” Operating not out of fear, but out of curiosity is a big ask for someone plagued with anxiety her entire life. Are we even mothers if we aren’t consumed with worry?

Of course, Christmas makes everything feel even more fraught. Have we engaged in enough acts of service? Am I instilling the right lessons and giving sufficiently during the Giving Season? Have I done a good enough job of modeling gratitude, even as I frantically juggle one million obligations as a mom? How am I supposed to instill these values in my children when I struggle with the shame of my own gratitude drought?

It's important to recognize it's not only about what we convey to our children but also the dialogue we have with ourselves. “You can't force someone to feel grateful any more than you can force them to feel happy or sad or any other feeling,” Dr. Pressman says. “You're much better off accepting how they feel and making it completely separate from teaching the concept of gratitude. It would be far more beneficial to the world if we all understood that it's possible to feel both emotions."

I can’t even tell you how much better that made me feel, to just accept the fact that sometimes, it’s complicated. There’s a conflict between my desire for control and the genuine values I wish to instill in my children, and it’s been throwing off my ability to make that connection with my kids that Dr. Pressman was talking about.

I've been searching for step-by-step instructions that promise a foolproof method or formula to ensure the development of well-mannered, joyful, and grateful individuals —something with checkboxes I can mark off. What I was missing was the ability to take a step back and survey the foundation first. Allowing my kids to have discomfort, to not immediately jump in to fix.

"It's like trying to control the weather instead of teaching our kids what to wear and how to dress for the weather,” Pressman explains. "Think of tears as rain — inevitable. Your job is not to cover the sky but to provide rain boots and a raincoat, letting them go out knowing they'll be okay, even if they get a little wet. We need to teach our kids: You'll experience these emotions, and that's okay. Let's practice how to move through them."

During one of my toddler’s most recent meltdowns yelling at her siblings to stop talking, I paused. I assessed the situation. I didn’t rush to stop the screaming, I didn't panic and let the image of Veruca Salt overtake my brain. I observed. I watched my 11 year old turn and say calmly, “I’m using this. You can have a turn next.” To my astonishment, the littlest said “OK,” and walked away. I try not to break my hand patting myself on my back, realizing it’s not going to go this way every time.

When they inevitably show disappointment on Christmas morning over something they didn't receive, I won't panic. It's part of the process. Having trust in ourselves as parents means knowing we can handle all their emotions—whether it's this feeling, this moment, or this expression of anger or frustration. It's not an emergency, as Dr. Pressman emphasizes.

And honestly, kids should be able to feel thankful and, simultaneously, openly communicate their sadness about certain events. "Those are two totally separate feelings that you're allowed to have," emphasizes Dr. Pressman.

I found that truly liberating to hear. I won’t get it right every time, of course, and neither will my kids. But at least now I understand more clearly how gratitude is something we cultivate every day, and not a stagnant quality we should feel guilty about not possessing. I’m grateful to see my children as the messy, complicated humans they are, embracing the beautiful journey of nurturing connections with them, one genuine emotion at a time.

Molly Wadzeck Kraus is a freelance writer and mother of three. Born and raised in Waco, Texas, she moved to the Finger Lakes region of New York, where she worked in animal rescue and welfare for many years. She writes essays and poems about feminism, mental health, parenting, pop culture, and politics. She is usually late because she stopped to pet a dog. She tweets at @mwadzeckkraus.

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