On the final night of Chanukah, I sat looking at the candles and was reminded of the purpose of the holiday — to express gratitude and praise for G-d for the miracles that He does for us. As with all reminders, the candles begged the question that they were there to answer: If we are a people known for gratitude (Yehudim), why do we need to be reminded to express it?
A peek into the day-to-day vicissitudes of parenting offers a clue. I met a friend over Shabbos this past week who relayed, briefly, what her morning was like. She had a bar mitzvah to attend and a lunch invitation that necessitated her dressing and bringing four small children to shul. After feeding them all and beginning to get them ready, one of the children had an all-too-typical-for-kids-of-that-age meltdown. Using her parenting wisdom and patience, she was able to turn this child around and complete the task of getting the children, and herself, ready for shul. As she was about to leave the house, the baby needed a diaper change. After completing that, the child who previously melted down started to have difficulty again. As they were finally ready to leave the house for the second time, the baby pooped again. By the time she got to shul, she was late and completely drained. Get the picture?
The fact is that even as we may think that we are grateful, when we are in the day-to-day trenches of parenting, we may not always feel it. So, why should we bother?
Gratitude allows us to balance the drudgery with a momentary positive thought that can be enlightening. It gives us perspective on what is, versus what we wish things would be. Studies show that people who live life with gratitude are physically and emotionally healthier, have increased empathy and reduced aggression, sleep better, have better self-esteem, are more resilient, and have better relationships.
The benefits of gratitude have effects on both parents and children. As parents, gratitude replenishes our resources. It gives us the positivity that allows us to experience joy, even in a small amount. It gives us a path for connecting positively with our children. It allows us to recognize the good done for us by G-d, which reduces stress and connects us to a Power greater than mere circumstance. The benefits of gratitude also affect our children. When we are grateful, our children feel connected to us and to the positive energy in the home. They perceive the peace and equanimity, if not joy, of their parents. They also learn from the parents’ model, which builds grateful kids who benefit from all of the same physical and emotional perks identified above.
Expressing gratitude is inherently personal, so there is no one right way to do it. There are gratitude journals, apps for tracking gratitude, or writing thank you notes, emails, or texts. One could also create a gratitude jar into which they place notes expressing gratitude. Prayer is a built-in gratitude builder, as large parts of our liturgy are dedicated to praising and thanking G-d as Creator, Sustainer, and Supervisor of our world.
My friend above, who is a consummately positive and grateful person, viewed the situation as a personal test designed to help her grow. She also viewed the moment from the perspective of the “long game,” searching for the characteristics of her child visible in that moment that would be valuable in a different time and place.
As parents, we can create environments that foster gratitude. We can ask at dinner, “What are you grateful for today?” We can model for kids how to express gratitude to others. We can expand the “gratitude jar” to include reading its contents at a family together time. Or, we can ask our kids how best to memorialize our personal and family gratitude and implement it as a team.
Whatever methodology you choose, may you be blessed with peace and joy in your family as you channel your inner Yehudi.
By Laura Goldman