A few weeks before Thanksgiving, I watched eight-year-old and seven-year-old sisters arrive late to breakfast because they had stayed in their beds to start their Christmas lists. On plain white sheets of paper, they scrawled: a new soccer ball, another stuffed animal, pink snow pants.
They showed the lists to their mom, who smiled and said, “hmm… interesting. Kind of early, don’t you think? Here’s another idea. How about if you make lists of what you plan to give to your brothers or friends?”
The girls kept writing: “books, special magic markers, hair ties….”
The mom gave them each another piece of paper. “Here you go. Let’s first be happy about all you have. How about knowing that happiness is not about wanting what you don’t have but about wanting what you do have?”
They darted her funny looks, the same eye-raising mom-what-are-you-crazy-kind-of-looks my kids shot me years ago when I initiated a bright idea. I sat and watched this family and remembered what gratitude practices I had, or tried to have, with my own children when they were young. In June, 1990, when my daughter was ten and my son eight, I bought a soft pink blank journal dedicated and labeled as “Things that we feel happy about.”
“Here we go,” I said, “we can keep a growing list.”
My daughter started right away, “I am happy that I just put dots on my legs with this very pen. Yea!”
In October she wrote, “Cuddling up in a bed, a warm bed, with the covers over my head with the family in the same bed.”
In November I wrote, “I love going through the leaves in autumn.”
She and I filled page after page. My son scribbled his opening note nine months later on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1991. First, he counted all other entries and wrote “337.” Then he added, “breakfast in bed.” Simple.
Those children are now forty and forty-two. I take out our old gratitude book often to add to it. “The cut on my finger stopped bleeding. …The heat works in the house… Thank goodness for my sensitive teeth toothpaste.” Simple things.
To be happy takes gratitude for what we have.
I am reminded of another practice I initiated with my children, this one less popular and met with more eye rolls. “Before we eat yummy Thanksgiving stuffing and pecan pie (their favorites), let’s write 50 things in this book we are grateful for.” This one failed. I wrote all 50.
Another not so popular one: “Before you each open your eight gifts for Hannukah, we’ll go through what you have and find eight things each to donate, to give away, to offer as gifts to those in need.”
They shot me crazy-mom looks again, but we did it. Today they are both generous, happy adults, donating time, love, energy and resources. They think that way.
Back to the breakfast table and the young sisters making Christmas lists. Handing the girls the blank sheet of paper dedicated for lists of what they might give, the mom said, “How will you be generous? To whom? Think of those people and think about what they like, what they might want.”
“Hmm,” the girls said as the energy shifted, maybe just for the moment, since Christmas is, of course, magical for kids. One asked, “Can I make gifts?”
“Sure. That might be the best kind.”
“Will you help me?”
“Of course. What do you have for ideas?”
“Maybe we could bake chocolate chip cookies for neighbors…….”
And so, the generosity-habit begins.