Overcoming attachment to gratitude from our children

Normally, when we are kind and generous towards somebody, at the very least we expect a little gratitude and appreciation for what we have done.  When it is not forthcoming, we become bitter towards the other person and develop regret for having been kind and generous.  We likewise develop the thought, “well, if they are going to be like that, then I won’t help them again in the future.”  What really drives us crazy is when we take our time to really help somebody, often times helping them do something which is not even our job, and then they criticise us for having made a mistake when we helped them!  Gen Losang tells the story of how he went into the kitchen at Manjushri Center and saw that the person who was supposed to have cleaned the kitchen did not do their job.  So, like a good bodhisattva, he decided to clean up the kitchen for them (this is a very big kitchen).  Then, just as he was almost finished, the person who was responsible for the kitchen came down, and instead of saying thank you, told Gen Losang in a critical way, “you missed a spot.” Just imagine how we would respond…

Being a parent is truly a thankless job.  When our children are babies, of course they don’t express any gratitude and we don’t expect them to because we know they are not capable.  But we do quite quickly become attached to them smiling back at us or giving us a coo or a kaw.  Generally speaking, though, we are able to give fairly unconditionally to babies.  Later, however, our attitude changes.  As our kids enter the middle to late toddler years, they grow extremely impatient with us.  They are so used to having us do everything for them, they are still not very capable of much, and they have a heightened sense of themselves being the center of the universe.  So if you don’t help them immediately, they start to get upset at you.  You do everything you can to help them learn how to do things on their own, and when they are finally capable of doing so, they get upset at you when you are no longer willing to do it for them.  When they reach 9 or 10, they learn the phrase “you are ruining my life”, and we hear this often.  When they become a pre-teen and early teenager, we become nothing but a source of embarrassement for them and they don’t want to have anything to do with us.  When they become a teenager, it is as if they are programeed to rebel against us and reject all that we stand for.  Also from about 9 on, we never stop hearing about how their friends have XYZ and they don’t, and how we are such bad parents because of that.  Or they say their friend’s parents never fight or never get upset at them, that we are the worst parents on earth.  As they get older, our function is reduced to being an ATM, and no matter how much money we give them it is never enough.  We may put them through college, enduring incredible sacrifices, but then they resent us for not having also paid for graduate school.  They then never call, never let us know what is going on, except when they get in trouble when they expect us to bail them out, and get upset at us if we do not.  When they have kids, their principal objective is to make sure they do not repeat all of the many mistakes we made when they were growing up.  At some point, life gets really hard for them and they can’t cope.  They then turn to modern psychology which explains that it is our parents fault that we are so screwed up!  So we become the object of blame.  Finally, when we are old and in need of their help, they are too busy with their own lives to be there for us.  They may help, but they do so with resentment, and we cannot help but feel miffed about their lack of gratitude.

One might look at all of this and think, “those little bastards, why would anybody want to have kids in the first place!”  But this is completely wrong.  In reality, we should be grateful for our kids being so ungrateful, because it is through their attitude that we can learn to give and care for others unconditionally.  Most of our interactions with everybody else in our life is some form of transaction, “I will do this for you if you do that for me.”  But with our kids, it is different.  We are willing to do things for them without expecting much in return except gratitude, but when they deny us even this, we can then learn to fully purify our giving and caring of expecting anything in return.  We give and we care because we want to train in love and virtue.  Virtue is its own reward.  If we take advantage of this opportunity, we will be able to quickly develop the minds of unconditional love and compassion, which are essential stepping stones on the path to enlightenment.

But we may object, “isn’t it our responsibility as parents to teach our kids to be grateful.”  The answer is, yes, of course.  But we have to make a very clear distinction between attachment to their gratitude for us and wanting them to learn the human quality of being grateful for their own sake.  If what we really want is gratitude for all our hard work and we nag our kids about showing gratitude, then we will get external expressions of gratitude but inside we will engender in them resentment towards us.  The attitude we should have is, “I don’t need your thanks, but as a human being you need to learn to be grateful for anything anybody does for you.”

But even though we ourselves don’t need their gratitude, from their side they still need to learn how to be grateful human beings.  So our job as their parents is to help them cultivate this grateful attitude.  The question is how?

There are several things we can do to help our kids learn gratitude.

  1. Set a good example of always being grateful for what others do for you.  When they see you having this attitude, they will naturally model it on their own (unless of course you nag them about how they need to be like you).
  2. Never be upset when people do not show gratitude towards you.  If they get upset about how others are not grateful towards us, then we can explain to them that we give because it is the right thing to do not because we expect anything in return.
  3. Develop within your own heart a genuine gratitude for your own parents, teachers, and those who have shown you kindness.  If you feel such gratitude, you will naturally express it and it will be naturally contagious to your children.  As you use roads, cars, buildings, tools, etc., develop a feeling for how kind everyone is for providing these things for you to use.
  4. Show gratitude for everything your kids do do for you.  It is especially important to be grateful when they show kindness to you because then they can learn the dynamic.
  5. Help them show gratitude towards others who help them, such as their teachers.  Help them really appreciate all that their teachers do by yourself being grateful and helping your kids do special cards or give special presents of thanks.  But you shouldn’t help them be grateful towards you, just others.  Whenever somebody does something nice for them, it is OK to encourage them to say thank you (just don’t nag them about it).
  6. Take advantage of birthdays, Christmas and mother’s/father’s day to help them get in the habit of showing their gratitude.  For example, as a father I should take the time to go to the mall with my kids so that they can get a gift for mother’s day.  On their mother’s birthday, I should help them realize if it weren’t for their mother being born, they wouldn’t be.  At Christmas, help them understand the cause of receiving (which is what they want) is they themselves giving to others in thanks.
  7. Help them realize, “nobody owes you anything.”  It is true, we tend to think that others, especially our parents, are obliged to do things for us.  But why is that?  Nobody is obliged to do anything for us.  If we expect people to do things for us and they do them, we dismiss their act as “normal”.  But if we expect nothing from anybody, and then somebody does anything for us, then we are naturally grateful.  It is all about our expectations.  If we can help our kids understand that nobody owes us anything, then we can help reset their expectations.

If we do these things, there is a good chance that our children will learn themselves to be grateful, but then again, maybe not.  We should not ‘need’ them to become grateful.  What we need is to learn how to give and love unconditionally.  One could even say it is our forewarned knowledge that we will likely never receive gratitude from our children, and in fact we will likely become the object of blame, that makes our giving and caring for our children today that much purer.  So we should embrace this fact, and indeed be grateful for it!

Your turn:  What act of kindness are you currently engaging in for which you still have attachment to receiving gratitude?

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