It starts with gratitude. Today, and every day after.
At tables around the country tomorrow, diners will be offering gratitude for the people, places, and privileges that they share.
Most of us take stock on scheduled holidays such as Thanksgiving, New Year’s Eve, and birthdays. A particular global event can also put our own lucky lives into perspective. Terrorist attacks in Paris have been a recent catalyst to reach out to those we love and hope for more peace and acceptance in the world. It takes practice to tune into life outside of you, and even more practice to appreciate it.
In broad strokes the steps towards being invested in the world outside of ourselves include noticing, appreciating, re-framing, and taking action. None of these are simple. We need to begin cultivating an awareness of others as soon as kids are old enough to realize that there are, in fact, others.
As parents, we can break down these vague steps into weekly practice.
With our boys in ages measured by months we began family meeting every Monday. Instead of looking at the whole wide world we began with the wild world of our family. In a fifteen meeting we run through appreciations (expressing gratitude), problem solving (identifying a sticking point and reframing it) and contributions (what we can each do as an individual to support our family and household).
Whoever dines with us on any Monday night joins the list of creatures we are grateful for, even the neighbor’s dog. When it is my turn to express gratitude I try to stay conscious of not building boxes to keep my boys in. My older son is often the peacemaker and is careful and caring. Although these traits are estimable, I don’t want him to identify as “a person who is a peacemaker.” I try not to tell stories about when he was selfless, because I don’t want him to think that his role in our family or the world is fixed.
Identifying as any one thing can be stifling. I want him to feel that the love from his mom is not tied to a particular characteristic. There will be times when he needs to act out or put his own wants before ours. I try to leave room for this, by varying what I notice and celebrate about him.
We also each appreciate ourselves. Being caring towards ourselves is a necessary to enable us to be involved in the world around us. My older son relishes this portion of the meeting. He offers upbeat compliments playing both the roles of both offering and accepting appreciation.
“Oliver, I feel you have worked very hard this week.”
“Well thank you.”
“You started your science video early and put some good planning into it. You didn’t just rush in and record it without much thought.”
“I tried to slow down. Thank you for noticing, Oliver.”
When it comes time for Leo to offer his appreciations, he runs through the three of us pretty quickly.
“Mama, thank you for cuddling me, Ollie, thank you for playing with me, Dada thank you for cooking me a yummy dinner!”
Steve and I know better than to roll our eyes, but after 6 solid years of this it has become a sort of punch line. He doesn’t treat himself much differently. He half hisses half whispers, “Leo, thank you for playing at recess.”
After a while we began to wonder if modeling varied and detailed appreciations for one another was going to be enough to give Leo license to leave his routine. In the end, it wasn’t Steve or I, or even his supportive brother who made the change. It was our cat.
For the past year Leo had continued his script thanking our cat for playing with him. One evening she was seated on the couch next to Leo, contorted into a ball while cleaning her butt with her sandpaper tongue. Instead of talking about playing, Leo told her he appreciated her attention to staying clean,and went on to ask:
“I do wonder how you are willing to store your tongue in your mouth after it has just licked your butt-hole…”
It is sort of difficult to stick to a script when you have just made a joke about a butt-hole. We all broke out laughing and something broke free. Leo had a lot to add to his usual list.
“Mama, thank you for cuddling me, particularly when you are not feeling your very best. It’s a great thing when a mama can still comfort her kid when she needs comfort herself. Do I comfort you too mama?”
“Ollie, I appreciate you playing with me that time when I wanted to play lights sabers and go back to our outdoor base but you wanted to stay inside. You knew I wanted attention, so you gave it to me and we went outside and then we had fun, right Ollie? We had fun.”
“Yes, Leo, we did have fun. Thank you for thanking me.”
“Dada, thank you for cooking such a yummy dinner. This week when we planned the meals you really listened to what I wanted, and then I know you picked the salmon just for me because Ollie doesn’t like salmon. Every bite of my salmon dinner felt like you saying you loved me.”
Steve, through tears responded:
“I do love you, bud.”
“Leo,” Leo continues as I hold my breath, wondering if he will still accuse himself angrily of enjoying recess,”Thank you for playing at recess. You tried something new today with a kid who needed a friend and you both had fun.”
Leo noticed a lonely kid. He appreciated how lucky he was to regularly have company at recess. He re-framed what he could do during the half hour of free time. He took action by including a little girl who is often sidelined. Noticing a problem and inserting yourself into a solution is exactly what we have been trying to teach.
It starts with gratitude.
Today, and every day after.
Photo credit: Flickr/nQXXrd