“When we were children we were grateful to those who filled our stockings at Christmastime. Why are we not grateful to God for filling our stockings with legs?” — G.K. Chesterton
All parents want to be happy and God wants that for us, too. There are obstacles to our happiness, though. We can fall into the trap of believing that once our baby sleeps through the night we will be happy. Or when we move into that larger home. Or when our toddler matures and stops throwing tantrums. We wait and hope for that moment when we will have the right house, the right job, the right behavior in our child. Of course this is an illusion.
One of the best ways to thrive as a parent has nothing to do with anything in our external environment. It boils down to our attitude, our perspective, our deepest beliefs about our life as parents. In particular, the happiest parents are those who cultivate gratitude, who recognize the many gifts they receive as parents – gifts they never expected, asked for, or deserved.
1. Why being grateful makes us happier
Scientists only really began to study gratitude in the last 10 to 20 years, but their findings are pretty startling. Many psychologists once believed that humans are born with a “set point” for happiness and that nothing we do can change it much. But the research on gratitude contradicts this viewpoint. People who cultivate gratitude in their lives experience measurable increased happiness, decreased depressions and anxiety, and better interpersonal relationships. Here’s a great article over at Psychology Today that provides a nice overview of gratitude research.
Apparently Americans express gratitude less readily than people in other cultures. Perhaps we struggle with gratitude because we so value independence and self-sufficiency while gratitude by definition requires us to recognize that somebody has given something to us that we have not earned, that we owe somebody a debt of thanks for a gift received. Gratitude is always other-directed. You can be proud of yourself, angry at yourself, or love yourself, but you can’t really be grateful to yourself.
I think this is why gratitude is so powerful in transforming us emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. God made human beings for communion and connection, and a grateful spirit allows us to move more easily outside our little shells to acknowledge one another, to embrace some other. We, for a moment at least, acknowledge that we are better off because of another person, that we get by only because of the work, generosity, and gifts of others. Gratitude feels good and leads to a better life because it allows us to be more human.
2. Gratitude 101: Recognizing and acknowledging gifts
We all have habits that make it hard for us develop real gratitude in our parenting. One of the big ones is viewing ourselves as victims of our children’s choices and habits. We may also have an unconscious sense of entitlement: we think we deserve a particular life or child we don’t have! Or perhaps we are not willing to see our own part in the struggles we have with our children. Are we inconsistent with rules, boundaries, and expectations? Do we yell too much? Shop or drink too much?
We can change these habits. Cultivating gratitude is a choice, not just an emotion. We can choose to become more grateful parents: we can cultivate the habit of gratitude and before we know it, we will be happier parents, able to recognize the spectacular gift we have received in each of our children, more alert to the graces of God in ordinary moments with our kids.
Being grateful requires us to recognize a gift and then to acknowledge it. How does this work for parents? Here are some practical tips for becoming a more grateful parent:
Journaling: Consider keeping gratitude a journal. Set aside a few minutes at the end of the day to write about five that occurred during the day that you are grateful for. I think this is a great idea for developing a heightened awareness of the good things of life that might go unnoticed because we are distracted or inattentive.
Prayer: Spiritual directors often tell their directees that the first step in spiritual growth is to foster a grateful heart. When I learned about the practice of the Ignatian daily examen prayer, I was told that the first step in the prayer is simply a gesture of gratitude. Megs Blackie over at Ignatius Spirituality explains:
“Gratitude is an acknowledgement of the continual gifting of God. And my expression of gratitude probably doesn’t begin with saying ‘thank you.’ Rather it begins in the savoring of what I have, in the celebration of the life that is. As I begin to savor and to celebrate, I start to look around for those whom I should include in my thanksgiving. I cannot help but turn my attention to God.”
To savor and to celebrate. That is the heart of gratitude. Sin often begins with a failure to recognize God’s gifts, a failure to give thanks. So the first step of the examen prayer is to reflect back over our day almost like a movie being replayed. We pause and meditate on any interactions or struggles that really stand out. We pause and reflect on these moments, look for and acknowledge God’s grace at work.
Visual reminders: Gratitude mentors encourage us to place visual reminders of gratitude around our homes. These might be little plaques or word clouds about gratitude, or perhaps something tangible that symbolizes some gift we want to honor. My youngest daughter Lydia likes to give my wee flowers that are so tiny I can hardly place them in a bud vase without drowning them. When I place these on the window sill above our kitchen sink, it is a reminder of my gratitude for her sweet gestures of affection. I am currently planning a quilt made from some of my children’s old clothing, particularly their baby clothes. If I ever manage to finish it, it will be a visible, cuddly reminder to be grateful for the unfolding of my children’s lives. My older daughter Claire made several painted river rocks over the summer. I think placing a painted gratitude rock on a tray on a nightstand would be a simple, lovely reminder to count our blessings.
3. Gratitude even on bad days?
What about really horrible, frustrating days? Can we find gratitude on these days? Absolutely. Here’s a great reminder from Henri Nouwen:
“Gratitude as a discipline involves a conscious choice. I can choose to be grateful even when my emotions and feelings are steep and hurt and resentful. It is amazing how many occasions present themselves in which I can choose gratitude instead of complaint. I can choose to be grateful when I am criticized, even when my heart responds with bitterness . . . I can choose to listen to the voices that forgive and to look at the faces that smile, even while I still hear words of revenge and grimaces of hatred.”
The fun, sweet times with our kids are easy to spot as graces we can be grateful for, but even the crummy stuff holds special graces. Maybe you had a flat tire and your van was filled with hungry, tired kids. While inconvenient, upon reflection you may remember that the tow truck guy was pleasant and humorous and made you smile. This is a grace for which we can be grateful. An argument with a child might lead to greater understanding between the two of you or you perhaps recognize some habit in yourself that isn’t working in your relationship. We can be grateful for these insights despite the discomfort of the argument.
Our perspective shapes our experience of parenting. When you’re a parent, inevitable frustrations and challenges arise, but how you perceive the situation can change your physical and emotional reaction to your children. When you perceive yourself as a victim, as not getting something you earned or deserve as a parent, you can become resentful. Before long your whole experience of parenting has soured and you have a hard time recognizing how privileged you are to be a mom or dad.
Recognizing the many things we have to be grateful for as we raise our particular children, in our particular home, on this particular day will make us happier parents no matter the challenges we encounter. Gratitude is the greatest enemy of resentment, period. Developing a habit of looking for graces and offering our gratitude increases our awareness of the way God is always active in our lives, how he always accompanies us on our parenting journey.
Resources for Your Gratitude Practice
Thanks: How Practicing Gratitude Can Make You Happier by Robert A. Emmons. The science of gratitude and how to practice it.
Gratefulness: The Heart of Prayer by David Steindl-Rast. “Waking up to the surprise that we live in a given world means coming alive. Awareness of this surprise is the beginning of gratefulness.”