Chanukah is a time of year we all look forward to family get-togethers, delicious fried foods, eight nights of candles, songs and matching family pajamas. This is also a time of year when economic anxiety abounds. We see it in two ways: some families will struggle to mount a holiday celebration on a budget. Other families react to what feels like overindulgence — the piles of gifts, the new toys their friends will show off, and the way kids can sometimes seem disappointed if gifts arrive that weren’t on their wish lists.
We are hard-working moms and dads, raised by hard-working moms and dads. Our parents and grandparents were the first in their families to go to college; they built businesses and survived economic depressions and wars. They instilled in us the importance of perspective and gratitude.
We know the value of what we have. Do our children?
Teaching gratitude, perspective and empathy to children is easier than you might think. The way children develop these behaviors as traits has mostly to do with role modeling and opportunities they are given at home to live out these parts of their identities.
Here are four tips to consider in raising grateful, empathetic light bearers:
1. Sharing and caring are best practiced at home.
Start early and often. Gratitude presents early and unevenly as an emotional state, starting in the late preschool period, but gratitude as a trait (or virtue) becomes more solid in early grade school. The development of gratitude is tied up in the development of several other areas of positive psychology including community connectedness, hope and optimism, love and positive relationships, and spirituality and prayer. In other words, these things influence one another and develop together.
Many parents inaccurately think gratitude develops in the context of shame — “Don’t you realize what you have?” — but what’s more true is that children in families with love and promotive language about each other and others in their lives, solid relationships and a sense of extended family and community belonging, optimism, and a sense of spirituality and religious traditions are more likely to be grateful. Conversations in the home matter the most.
These discussions can happen throughout the course of the day as we, as parents, model our gratitude for both big and small moments. “Wow, I’m so thankful for the wonderful dinner we were able to share with grandma and grandpa tonight.” Or, “I always notice how you are the first to help around the house, and I am grateful to you.” This time of year can also be a great time to start the family tradition of a “gratitude jar.” Each family member can write or draw something they are thankful for and put it into a special container. These slips can be read at the end of the month or whenever we need reminders of gratitude in our busy days.
2. Teach that “need” is a state, not a trait.
Framing giving as a thing we do that they receive … is “othering” and it’s also just not true. Need is a state of being, and it is flexible, rather than a trait that defines a person’s identity. What’s more, everyone has needs. And everyone has something to offer.
How do you help your children to notice that duality and to define value beyond financial wealth? Someone else may have new ideas, skills or perspectives to offer.
When do you describe being in need yourself? And how do you describe the way others help you? Then, do you take opportunities to give when you can and role model selflessness? Intimacy in relationships inherently depend on this kind of balance and, once woven into loving relationships, children can learn to replicate it outside the home but without needing to give away the humanity of those they help or feel shame in accepting help from others.
Sometimes this means making invisible labor … visible. For example, “I’m so grateful to the person who helped me bag groceries at the store — without his help, I may have had a harder time getting out of the store while managing the kids.” Other times, it means sharing your own vulnerabilities. “Someone at work taught me how to do something new today. We all have lots to learn, and I’m grateful someone took the time to teach me.”
You can ask your kids at the end of the school day, when did they notice giving or receiving in their classrooms? What are some special gifts they have to give, like helping a friend to read, or being kind and inviting a new friend to play at recess? What are some ways they received, like borrowing school supplies, or being taught to do something new in art class?
3. Inequity aversion is a normal developmental phenomenon.
Inequity aversion builds upon another developmental phenomenon emerging around the preschool period, called theory of mind, which is essentially the capacity to understand that other people may have different thoughts and feelings than you do. It underpins empathy and perspective.
Around early school age, approximately 8 or 9 years old, children will reject situations where resources are divided unevenly, whether or not that inequity benefits or harms them. They will demand equity. Inequity aversion is developmentally normal and is modified over time, later, by a multitude of context cues. However, the normal human state is to desire equity.
You can pause here if you need to digest that — we don’t live in an equitable world, so clearly something in our society veers off track after childhood. However, this is an article about parenting, and what you must know is that your child already believes equity matters … you don’t have to go hard on that lesson.
In fact, they may have something to teach you. Acknowledge inequity when you see it, don’t make it invisible. Consider how you respond to inequity in your own life. What kind of a role model are you? Do you exploit inequity, ignore it, or respond to it? Practicing gratitude in front of your children is a chance to not only impact positive mood and mental health, but it is a way to name inequity and demonstrate your own awareness.
What opportunities do you give your children to impact equity? Young children need small, repeated opportunities inside of their own communities. Older children, who can grasp the influence of social structures, need opportunities to consider their own power.
Like the other lessons above, teaching children to build on their own Inequity aversion is the stickiest in small, repeated moments. For young and older children, give opportunities for reflection. If something seems unfair, talk about why and ask what assets your child has to promote justice. Would speaking up help? Would support for the person most directly impacted help? Do you have something to give? And especially for older kids: what rules are in place that prevent equity?
4. Anonymous giving is the highest form of giving.
Maimonides, a 12th century Jewish scholar, teaches us that there are eight rungs on the tzedakah ladder, each one higher than the last. The top level of the ladder — giving to individuals before they become impoverished — gets tricky in modern society, where we are not privy to our neighbors' financial situations.
However, the next rung down offers us the opportunity to perform a mitzvah, simply for the sake of doing a good deed. On this rung, both giver and receiver remain anonymous, while a trustworthy source administers the tzedakah. Here again, we are able to provide our children with a lesson in giving and gratitude, teaching them the beauty of giving for giving’s sake.
This time of year is the perfect opportunity to involve your child(ren) in your annual giving. Let them suggest charities that are meaningful to them such as a local playground fund, The Detroit Zoo, or an organization that focuses on something important in their own lives (accessible sports for children, dance scholarships, etc). Sometimes this type of giving feels too abstract to parents — will my children truly understand the meaning of giving? They will if they learn over time to see generosity as a family trait and integrate it into their identities.
Parents are their children’s first teachers. Shine your own light and they will learn to keep shining theirs.