This morning my youngest daughter (4) woke up in a great mood, with a big smile she turned around to me and asked: “Mummy what’s special about today again?” I looked at her puzzled and I asked her: “What do you mean?” and she repeated “What’s special about today?”. I paused for a second and then said: “Well, it’s special that we woke up healthy, it’s special that the sun is shining…”. She interrupted me impatiently and said: “No Mummy, I mean what is SPECIAL about today?” and I knew what she meant: “Are we going anywhere special today, are we getting a special treat today, is someone special coming to visit today?” It was once again a reminder of how our children’s expectations, through no fault of their own, have changed so much in today’s world.
Magnified expectations of excitement, rewards, entertainment and entitlement are having a big impact on our children’s sense of reality, their happiness, contentment and general well-being. Even though we as a family are making a point of teaching our girls about gratitude, making them aware of how lucky we are to have a house, enough food, warm clothes, and the occasional treat, they are starting to be influenced by other factors and people such as children in school or television programmes for example. It’s not just us anymore that influence our children’s views, expectations and attitudes and it is difficult for parents to try and deal with this new situation, when children’s awareness expands beyond the family home.
Let’s get one thing straight though, this isn’t really a new phenomenon but a normal developmental step to a certain extent. When children start to socialise outside their home in pre-school or school, they start to relate to others which includes comparing themselves to others. Children become more aware of themselves through these interactions and as a result they recognise similarities and differences. What’s interesting though is that there often seems to be an attitude of “the grass is always greener on the other side”. We all know the phrases “But she is allowed to…”, “But he got one…”, “I wish we could…”. I even remember myself as a child and my parents getting exasperated whenever I’d come home from school with one of the above phrases. My dad even went as far as saying: “Well, if they would jump off a cliff, would you do the same?” I know this is a bit crass and not very PC but the essence of this statement is clear: “We are our own people, we make decisions for ourselves, we have our own priorities and other families have their way of life.” It’s a difficult learning curve for children and I believe it’s both necessary to “stick to our guns” as well as compromising in certain situations.
We’re all trying our best to raise our kids as well as we can depending on our own circumstances and beliefs. We ourselves send in healthy food for the girls’ school lunch, we try to adhere to guidelines not to bring toys or trinkets to school, we limit treats and activities, we spend a lot of time outdoors, we try and use appropriate language and encourage compassion, gratitude and kindness for example. Every family has their own beliefs, priorities and preferences, everybody’s situation is different from the next but it’s difficult for children to see why another child still brings in a chocolate bar for their school lunch, why their friend goes to an after-school activity every day, why another family is going on a second holiday for the year.
Children are starting to compare their own situation with others but like us all they often only know half the story. Tom might go on a second holiday but that’s because his parents are separated and Mum and Dad both want to indulge him, Lucy brings in bars and crisps to school because her Mum is at work in the mornings and she has to fend for herself… It’s to try and stick to our main priorities and explain as best as we can why our own beliefs are the way they are, and why maybe another family has different beliefs and/or circumstances. It’s also about compromise. It’s not fair to our children if we don’t afford them a certain amount of flexibility and let them make their own decisions and find their own preferences. Our oldest daughter kept coming home from school saying that all the other girls bring in little trinkets/toys and she was feeling more and more left out. Even though I’d rather she didn’t bring in any toys to school, I let her pick a couple of small things that fitted into her pencil case so she would feel more included.
Coming back to our children’s growing expectations, it is important that we teach them about gratitude. I believe gratitude is one of the main components of happiness and there are many ways in which we can encourage feeling grateful. I have included the following section with some ideas from my book “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a revolution” and hope you find them useful:
“So, how can we do this? How can we teach gratitude to our children? There are different opportunities to teach gratitude that we can naturally incorporate into our daily lives:
- Limit choices and frequency of treats.
Do you know the feeling of reading a large menu in a restaurant, struggling to make a choice, and once it’s made doubting your choice and thinking you should have picked something else? For me that often affects my enjoyment of the meal. Even as an adult, I struggle with too many choices. Especially for young children, too many choices can not only be overwhelming but will also give them a sense of “We can have anything we want! ”This will dilute the meaning of a treat and make it less special to the child. If children take treats for granted, then treats are not treats anymore, which in turn will affect their appreciation and gratitude for receiving them. It is often a good idea to keep treats a surprise – if they are not expected, the excitement and feeling of gratitude and happiness will be enhanced greatly.
- Make your children aware of children who aren’t as fortunate as them.
You, as the parent, will be the judge of a suitable example for your children. Keep it simple for very young children and maybe show them a picture or picture book of a child who owns only one toy, for example. Older children will be able to learn more about living conditions around the world. It doesn’t necessarily have to introduce them to very traumatic examples such as war or extreme starvation, but from my experience children are very interested in other cultures and how children live in other countries. From children living in nomadic families in Mongolia to children living in tribal villages in a South American rainforest or African bush, these examples will clearly illustrate to children the extent of our wealth and comfort. It might also show them that most of these children might lead a very simple yet happy and more grounded life than our children in modern Western society.
- Encourage children to be charitable.
Following on from teaching an awareness that many other children don’t have as much as they do, we can encourage our children to donate to a worthy cause or even just give a helping hand. Clear out the toy box every so often and let the children make a choice in what could be given to a charity or even to children they personally know. There are many ways in which awareness can be created that “giving” can be more joyful than receiving. On a daily basis, this can be done simply by encouraging children to be kind to others, be helpful if you can and share with friends and family even in the smallest way.
- Keep a gratitude journal.
This can be done daily or at the end of every week. Again, it can be adapted depending on the child’s age and ability. Young children can stick on pictures of activities or treats that they particularly liked and have a chat about why they liked them so much. Older children could maybe pick three things they are grateful for or particularly enjoyed every evening and either write them into a journal or make a drawing or painting. This will not only bring to their minds what they are grateful for, but it will also conclude their day in a positive way.
- Learn to say “no”.
We all want our children to be happy and fulfil their needs and wishes, but children need to learn that there are boundaries and limits in order to have realistic expectations for the future. The example we give as parents teaches our children what to expect, what is acceptable and what is not. This sometimes means that we need to say “no” and stick to it. We should of course be sensitive and fair even in saying “no”. Explain your reasons: “You have had your treat already today”, “We can’t afford to buy this toy; it’s too expensive” or “Tom can come and play another time when we are not as busy”. Being consistent and fair will help your child accept rules and understand certain decisions.
- Let children earn a treat – teach them the value of money.
I recently brought my five-year-old daughter shopping. She spotted a toy that she really liked and proceeded to tell me that she was buying it. I looked at her and asked her where she had the money to pay for it. She answered that I had the money, to which I replied that I only had money for our groceries and that she could save up her piggy bank money to buy toys. Now this could have gone either way as many of you can imagine, but even to my surprise she thought about it for a minute, said okay and moved on. I believe that children should know that “money doesn’t grow on trees” (Oh, how I hated this expression when I was a child), and that we as parents work hard to keep the boat afloat. Giving children age-appropriate chores to earn a reward is a valuable lesson, and it instils a real sense of appreciation of “I earned this”. It also prepares children very slowly and gently for “the real world”. There won’t be free handouts when they stand on their own two feet in the future, and they won’t expect it either.
- Show/teach your children where food comes from, preferably wholesome natural foods.
Even if it’s just a small container, plant a small garden and involve the children in caring for the plants. Encourage them to watch the plants grow and then harvest and eat the produce. Children love to get involved and are fascinated by watching seeds grow into vegetables. If possible, keep some chickens and let the kids help to care for them and collect and use the eggs. Visit a farm or small artisan food producers that make their own cheeses, breads, preserves etc. There are many places around that actually offer workshops and open days to involve children and educate them. Children will appreciate food much more if they know how much work, care and love goes into the production.
- Use a reward chart.
Some children might find it too difficult or abstract to wait or work for a treat/reward. It often helps to use a reward chart to help your child understand. Start small and rather than using a weekly chart, use a chart for an hour or two. Earn stickers for good behaviour, small acts of kindness, being helpful, finishing homework, brushing teeth and doing a small chore. You know your child best; just tailor the chart to your child’s need and ability.
- Lead by example.
Children learn a lot from us parents and the example we give. Be mindful of your own words and actions. Show appreciation for small things, especially coming from our children. Make much of every picture they paint, every kind gesture they make and every task well done. As parents, we can only teach authentic gratitude if we show genuine gratitude ourselves.
It is important for children to learn to be grateful for things that can’t be bought for money. I actually believe that most children intrinsically crave the blessings that aren’t materialistic. I love the following story, published by Dan Asmussen, and I think it really illustrates that children still have a natural connection and desire for the “simple things in life” beneath it all.
One day a very wealthy father took his son on a trip to the country for the sole purpose of showing his son how it was to be poor. They spent a few days and nights on the farm of what would be considered a very poor family. After their return, the father asked his son how he liked the trip.
‘It was great, Dad,’ the son replied. ‘Did you see how poor people can be?’ the father asked. ‘Oh, yeah,’ said the son.
‘So, what did you learn from the trip?’ asked the father.
The son answered, ‘I saw that we have one dog and they had four. We have a pool that reaches to the middle of our garden, and they have a creek that has no end. We have imported lanterns in our garden, and they have the stars at night. Our patio reaches to the front yard, and they have the whole horizon. We have a small piece of land to live on, and they have fields that go beyond our sight. We have servants who serve us, but they serve others. We buy our food, but they grow theirs. We have walls around our property to protect us; they have friends to protect them.’
The boy’s father was speechless.
Then his son added, ‘It showed me just how poor we really are.’
Too many times we forget what we have and concentrate on what we don’t have. What is one person’s worthless object is another’s prize possession. It is all based on one’s perspective. Sometimes it takes the perspective of a child to remind us what’s important.
For more information on mindful parenting and education and a practical everyday approach that can be applied by anybody and tailored to your individual circumstances take a look at my new book “Roots and Wings – Childhood needs a revolution”, a handbook for parents and educators to promote positive change based on the principles of mindfulness.
Thanks so much for your interest and support! 😉 Alex
Also available as kindle and paperback on Amazon: