Teaching our kids the trickiness of thanks

Dr. Delaney Ruston – Part of what we do as parents that is so special and important is that we bring up conversation topics with our kids that may not have been discussed elsewhere. I have just such a topic that I want to offer — a topic that pertains to Thanksgiving, and it has to do with the challenges of giving thanks. I am talking about meaningful thanks. 

I find that people rarely talk about how nervous and self-conscious we humans can feel when we thank someone for something they did or said. Even just contemplating expressing our thanks can make us feel anywhere from a little uncomfortable to super vulnerable. And yet, so often, these uncomfortable expressions of gratitude are the truly meaningful ones.

There are plenty of times we all say thank you, and it comes without any emotional hurdle like saying thank you to the cashier as we smile through our mask and push our cart away. Or thank you to someone who steps aside to maintain a COVID-safe distance, and so on. 

But I am talking about the thank-yous that make us feel a bit vulnerable. For instance, telling a teacher (in person or via a letter) why you so appreciated being in their class and that you liked that thing they did when they shared a story about their days in school, or how they listened to you that time you came in having problems with a friend. 

When we give specific examples to people of why we appreciate them or what they did that we are grateful for, we can be self-conscious. And yet, the real gold may lie precisely in those times we find we want to give thanks but hold back. The times we are aware of a little unease most likely means the thank you will be really meaningful. 

I believe we all want to live life in fuller alignment with our values, but our emotions often get in the way. And I believe our kids would all say they want to be thought of as an appreciative person. I believe our kids would also say they want to be thought of as someone who can give thanks to people. I would wager that all you adults would say the same for you.

And yet, this can be so hard. I am sure if you sit and talk as a family, you will come up with plenty of people you wanted to say thank you to but didn’t and never really stopped to think about the reasons why not. Emotions can yank us around so intensely that it has long shocked me that we don’t start teaching earlier in life more about emotions and the mind — hence, Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, which explores ways youth can more skillfully recognize and handle the pull of emotions.

There are all sorts of conscious and subconscious ways to step into the discomfort of saying how appreciative we are about something. Here is an example I experienced recently:

I wanted to send someone a thank you card for being on my podcast because I so thoroughly enjoyed our conversations. I became aware of some thoughts that came up, such as, “Well wait, would a really ‘successful’ person do that — does a super famous podcaster, like Stephen Dubner from Freakonomics, send cards to say how much they appreciated XYZ?” Probably not. 

Once I recognized those thoughts and emotional doubts, I was able to get my logical brain more on board and thought to myself, “I deeply value taking the time to give meaningful thank-yous, and I am not going to let the insecure parts of my ego drive this boat.” And that is how I got past the block and wrote the note.

Here is another example. I periodically send friends random cards to tell them the ways I appreciate them. I always spend energy to write specific examples of why they mean so much to me. Recently I was writing a card to a friend from my medical training, and one of the things I thought to thank her for was helping me sort out some new medical guidelines.  

And you want to know something, even writing that card was a bit of an emotional hurdle because part of my mind was thinking, “Did I bother her by asking for her help? Should I have asked her first if I was bothering her? Ergg, am I just one big bother? I don’t want to think about any of this; maybe I should bag writing this card.”

Fortunately, I was able to shrug off those thoughts. I did a reality check and wrote the darn card, and felt so happy sending it. 

Those little thoughts that pop into our minds that have an emotional overlay, i.e., “…maybe I am just one big bother,” are part of the reasons we hold back from telling people why we appreciate them. And yet, when we do get past the little emotional roadblocks, we give them such AN AMAZING GIFT. 

When I was in Chicago filming at a school for Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER, one of the high school’s wonderful English teachers pulled out a stack of cards and told me they were from students expressing their appreciation of her. She said that she kept those cards nearby so she could read them periodically to help her smile on stressful days. 

I think about how acts of gratitude can have such big ripple effects. There is a long line of research showing that job burnout is correlated with not feeling like one’s work has meaningful impact. When people get ongoing reminders that their work is positively impacting others, this can make the difference between staying in a career or abandoning it. 

Questions to get the discussion started:

  1. When was the most recent time you sent or said a thanks that had real specifics in it and felt meaningful?
  2. Were you at all hesitant? What emotions may have been at play to cause that hesitancy?
  3. As a parent, can you think of anybody from your youth, or now, that you have wanted to be more open about your appreciation but find that something, inner thoughts or emotions hold you back? Can you share this with your kids?
  4. Do any or all of you want to commit to picking someone (a teacher, a relative, a past sports coach or music teacher, a boss, etc.) to communicate appreciation and thanks?

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