Remember the kids’ book, “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein?
It’s about a lovely green tree and a little boy. The tree loves the little boy and is happiest when he swings on her branches, slides down her trunk and relaxes in the shade beneath her leaves. As the boy grows older, he visits the tree less often and then, only when he needs something from her. The tree gives all of herself to the boy— her leaves, her branches, her trunk— until all that is left of the tree is a stump.
There are several interpretations of this simple book— the value of unselfishness, the relationship between nature and humankind, and the poignant sadness of unrequited love. For me, the tree is the symbolic parent and the boy, her (or his) son. The tree gives and gives and gives without hesitation or concern and, in the end, loses herself completely. Instead of learning to depend on himself, the boy depends on the tree to grant him whatever he needs. The source of his happiness, and solutions to his problems, come from outside himself so he doesn’t need to learn to develop inner resources, or learn how to internalize feelings of gratitude. It isn’t until the end of the book, when the boy has grown old, that he demonstrates awareness and is grateful for what the tree has given him.
“The Giving Tree” behaves like so many parents— willing to sacrifice everything to ensure their child grows into a happy adult. The thing is, the self-sacrifice and stress today’s parents feel does not seem to be translating into their children’s happiness.
Parents share their frustration, sadness and incredulity with me that despite all they’ve been given, their kids aren’t happy. They tell me how worried they are about their children, saying things like: “He falls apart when he is disappointed.” and “She is only as happy as her last test grade.” One parent describes raising his daughter is like “constantly blowing up a balloon with a hole in it.” Even though parents frantically pump their kids up with enrichment classes, fancy trips, and the latest Apple products, their kids are still not satisfied, or grateful.
At the same time, parents feel pressure to sacrifice everything for their kids. The consequence of this uber-giving has its challenges on both ends of the equation: parents experience an almost constant feeling of stress and depletion while their children struggle to internalize feelings of happiness.
Madeline Levine, who wrote “The Price of Privilege” claims there are two major factors that contribute to the emotional trials and tribulations of children today—achievement pressures and a lack of authentic emotional closeness with their parents. Thus, the pressure a parent feels to be perfect and all-giving is not translating into a deeper, more connected relationship. In fact, in the last 25 years of practice, I am seeing more kids and teens suffering from feelings of disconnection and loneliness than ever before.
In The Journal of Happiness Studies, researchers Park and Peterson found that children who feel and express gratitude experience more genuine happiness, deeper connections, and are less materialistic. Gratitude arises under conditions of scarcity. And, according to the research, our kids have so much that it’s difficult for them to feel grateful. We all acclimate to what we have.
If “The Giving Tree” is a cautionary tale for parents and children, what can you do to foster an attitude of gratitude in your children? How can you help them become productive, resilient, internally satisfied members of society? Wendy Mogel, New York Times best-selling author of “Blessings of a Skinned Knee” articulates it well: “No one is born feeling grateful; it’s an acquired skill.
There are ways to help your kids acquire this skill— to practice gratitude, develop more self-awareness and inner resources. Here are some suggestions:
Model Your Own Gratitude Skills
Try saying this: I just griped to Sarah for a half hour on the phone, and she listened to me. What a great friend. I feel so much better.
Slow Down and Listen
There are enormous benefits to being present and mindful with your child, to allow them the space reach inside and expose “the most delicate parts of their developing selves” (Madeline Levine). Spend time just listening. Remove the pressure to give advice, make corrections or add your own commentary. It is through listening we get to know our children as they evolve. There may be times when you don’t like what you see. That’s OK. Wendy Mogel says, “Consider it perfectly normal if you like your child’s friends better than you like your child.” It’s most important that you are focusing on the child in front of you, not the child in your fantasies.
Don’t Confuse Wants With Needs
Be clear about the differences between privileges and needs. Kids NEED food and shelter. Taking a trip, having a cell phone or taking dance lessons? Those are privileges (WANTS). For many parents, it’s natural to always say “yes”. “Yes” to solving a problem. “Yes” to giving into “wants”. It is more difficult to pause before giving, to pause before fixing things for your kids.
Try saying this to yourself: What can my child learn if I don’t fix it? Or, Which part of this problem can my child solve without my help? Or, how can I encourage my child to get this “want” him/herself?
Focus on Process Rather Than Result—Internal vs. External Motivation
By recognizing and appreciating that your child is separate from you, you’re communicating your faith in them to solve their own problems.
Try saying this: Tell me how you are thinking about solving this problem.
Rather than: You should do it this way.
Try saying this: I know you worked really hard on that project.
Rather than: What grade did you get on your project?
Whenever Possible, Delay Gratification
Try saying this: I know you think you need this right this second, but it can wait.
Know That Caring for Your Child Means Caring for Yourself
The giving tree did not stop the boy from taking everything from her. Without proper boundaries and limits, kids will chop away until there is nothing left. You aren’t doing your child any favors by putting your own needs at the bottom of the priority list.
I’m not sure who the author of this quote is, but I find it very instructive: “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child.” Consider using it as a guiding principle as you learn to instill an attitude of gratitude in your children, as well as in yourself.