How can we teach children to be thankful?
By Lisa Allen
While walking back to meet arriving parents, “Sky” was moving slower than the rest of the group, and not as directly toward our adult goal of the moment. He was enjoying the sparkle of sunlight on wet leaves after the rain, listening to a rooster crow from behind a large tree, feeling life coursing through the body while all needs were met and nowhere else to be.
Already familiar with Sky’s blissful states, this time I knew his dad would be waiting, and we teachers were looking forward to our own return to family. “Sky, it’s time to go, now! Look, everyone’s far ahead and your dad will have arrived by now!” He was unmoved by my urgency. I gently nudged him forward and found his body as grounded as my aikido master’s steady stance, seeming to somehow hold a deeper authority in that moment, connected to something larger than the ticking of adult needs.
I recognized Sky’s experience as “mindful presence,” a coveted state I see the whole culture clamoring after, chasing the promise of higher test scores, improved behavior, and mental health outcomes.
The current cultural interest in mindfulness is borrowed from Eastern cultural traditions, one of the most influential being Buddhism. In Gautama Buddha’s quest for blissful meditative states, he found his first breakthrough by remembering a moment from his childhood, something similar to what we experience on an ordinary day at A Wilder Harmony.
From the life of Gautama Buddha
“He sought out one teacher and then another one, mastering what they taught him and then moving on.
Then, with five companions, for five or six years he engaged in rigorous asceticism. He tortured himself, held his breath, and fasted until his ribs stuck out "like a row of spindles" and he could almost feel his spine through his stomach.
Yet enlightenment seemed no closer.
Then he remembered something. Once as a boy, while sitting under a rose apple tree on a beautiful day, he had spontaneously experienced great bliss and entered the first dhyana, meaning he was absorbed in a deep meditative state.”
Understandably our cultural fascination with wellness has increased since the pandemic, and we’re particularly concerned about our children and teens. Neuroscientists are making great strides in understanding states of happiness and ways to get there. And gratitude practice is gaining in popularity as a way to increase wellbeing at every age.
The noted Hungarian-American psychologist, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi outlined his theory of “Flow” in his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. He postulated that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. This is very similar to what ancient texts recount Gautama Buddha discovering for himself 2,500 years ago.
At A Wilder Harmony we work to gently unravel the elements of educational control that work against the beneficial forces of nature. This is no quick, easy task as we are all deeply conditioned by our schooling and ideas therein that assume children benefit from adults measuring and exerting control over their growth. While adult influence over children is innately powerful, we have no direct control over the inclination of their heart. That is their sacred territory. While we can physically move them from here to there, whether happily or kicking and screaming, we can’t make them do it willingly. And so, the matters of the heart are in their innocent hands, so to speak. In the absence of direct control over their hearts, we can however work with the powerful influence we do have in nurturing their flourishing.
This leads us to the question at hand this time of year. How can we teach children to be thankful? A few questions arise in this context:
1. Is it possible to teach someone to be in a certain state of mind?
2. What is our purpose? Are we teaching children a concept for its own sake, or as a means to achieving a state they already experience naturally?
I’d like to consider the possibility that gratitude is a concept, and as a concept it’s not natural for young children. Whereas the states we use gratitude to invoke are natural to young children.
So, instead of getting pulled any further down the rabbit hole of teaching gratitude, I come back to a tried-and-true recipe of influence learned from Gandhi… to be the change I want to see...
I’ve found the most direct way of transmitting gratitude, and perhaps the only way, is to express my own gratitude for my children to them, when it truly arises. And that’s no small matter, since I must admit to not always feeling gratitude for this role of being their mother! But when I do catch it in myself, I can partake in an active contagion, a kind of love that transcends any compulsion to “parent them” into their future selves. In this state of gratitude, together we touch the flow of the river of life. States of mind are like this river; they cannot be pushed, but arise when the rains come and the land gives way.
As one final thought… I like to keep my eye on the sustainability of what's cultivated in my midst, and the hindrances I unintentionally cultivate through my unconscious parts. The best way to cultivate gratitude into the future is to prevent impediments where possible. One impediment I can prevent in myself is an over-zealousness in trying to teach children things they’re not already experiencing for themselves on some level. This is the risk for me as a mother who loves them far more than I could have ever imagined. I remind myself to simply point out what I honestly see, when I have the eyes to see.