Like compassion, gratitude cannot be taught simply through words and ideas. It needs to be communicated through actions and deeds. We often fail to teach our children the importance of gratitude because we neglect to show them how grateful we are ourselves.
Some Unitarian Universalist parents, who do not believe in thanking a divine presence, avoid the practice of expressing thanks in graces, blessings or prayers. But we also often neglect to show how grateful we are for what we have. Perhaps it’s merely human nature to take for granted what one already has, or maybe just the way our materialistic culture encourages us to long for that which we do not have.
In the ancient language of Sanskrit, the word santosha is loosely translated as “contentment.” Whereas we tend to think of happiness-as-bliss, this concept expresses the idea that contentment—rather than the obtaining of gratification—is the source of true happiness.
The Hindu religious tradition goes even further, regarding santosha (or contentment) as the natural state of our humanity, which allows for our creativity and love to emerge. It helps us to know our place in the universe at every moment and creates unity with the largest, most abiding reality. Santosha is above all a way of achieving inner peace.
Since finding inner peace through contentment requires us to feel good about what we have in life, gratitude is the natural result. Living every moment of our lives appreciating what we have means recognizing that the labors of many people—such as those who bring the food to our dinner table, from the farm workers in the field to the truck drivers who transported it to our community to the grocery shelf stockers who shelved it for us to the person in our family who did all that shopping and cooking (and the clean-up after the meal).
All families can express their appreciation and gratitude through the intentional act of noticing and commenting on what is good in their lives, no matter what their theology. Since expressing gratitude is intentionally recognizing how fortunate we are, it can create an inner shift in our thinking. Because of this, family ritual is perhaps the most powerful way of creating a culture of appreciation within a family. Whether it be prayer, spoken words before a meal, or a special recognition ritual before bedtime, Unitarian Universalist parents can pass on the special value of gratitude to their children through everyday family moments and special occasions.
Since gratitude is also about thanking one another, we can start with the people who share our lives—for, unfortunately, we are least likely to thank and appreciate the people who are closest to us. Finally, since gratitude is the twin sibling of generosity, being grateful can make us feel more generous. And the whole world needs more generosity.
What are you thankful for in your life? How do share your gratitude? How do you show your children your gratitude and teach them to also be thankful?
Photo above © Courtney Weittenhiller/iStockphoto
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Michelle Richards is the author of Tending the Flame: The Art of Unitarian Universalist Parenting (Skinner House, 2010).