Kids who understand gratitude have better grades and are less likely to get depressed. This was the conclusion of a recent story in the Wall Street Journal that struck a chord with both my husband and me.
Both of us hail from immigrant families who arrived to the U.S. in the 1970s. Both of us grew up poor. When I was a kid, everything we owned was either a hand-me-down or picked up from the curb. My husband and I share stories of being shaped as latch-key kids with no toys and high-water jeans.
I hesitated starting a toy-review website because I knew my kids would be testing and playing with most of the toys. New toys. Lots of them. I feared too many toys would make them ungrateful or, as others might say, “spoiled.” The idea of spoiling kids is incongruous to the parent I want to be. And yet, I still give them toys because I love them (the toys and the kids) so much.
So parents like me face this dilemma: We want to give our children everything we didn’t have. But we don’t want them to forget where they came from either. The truth is, though, that I learned gratitude because it was forced on me: My parents simply didn’t have material things to give me so I learned to be thankful for the little we had. So by giving my kids what I never had—toys, snow boots, fashionable jeans—would they be destined to become ungrateful?
The question has consumed me for much of the last year, and so, the Wall Street Journal article was timely. It encourages families to make their children do chores and express thanks for their meals and other gestures. But I have young kids and those tactics felt too abstract.
And so, I turned to the best tools I have to make my kids understand: toys. Kids do not know how big or little your paycheck is. Kids do not understand what income tax or health insurance deductibles are either. However, they do know how much a Nintendo DS game cartridge costs. They know how much a Wii costs. Or a slice of pizza or a bottle of Gatorade. This is their vocabulary—their understanding of values in our material world. We can work with that. And to get our kids to understand the meaning of gratitude, we must.
If Kids Cut the Veggies, They Will Eat Them
The two areas I wanted to most impart gratitude: food and play. With food, my kids were horribly picky and wasteful. It was getting out of hand and so I sought help from Susan Roberts, a pediatric occupational therapist and author of My Kid Eats Everything. She told me kids eat horrible diets today because they are just being “fed.”
“It is such a passive process now,” she says. In the past, until about the mid-20th century, kids joined families in the kitchen, helping to prepare food, setting the table, clearing the table, and washing the dishes. Among the, as Roberts terms them, “multi-causal factors that have contributed to the decline in children being involved in meal preparation and clean up” are: changes in agriculture making it easier for restaurants to sell food cheaply, the increase in convenience stores, and more women at work. “People eat out much more often,” she said, so kids are not eating what’s available, they are ordering what they want. Roberts actually tells families that even if they go out to restaurants, the parents should still order the food for the child. “We have to put the parents back in charge of food. Right now, it’s the children who are in charge so of course, they’re going to eat gummy bears and goldfish crackers.” Long ago, Roberts reminds, children even caught their family’s food.
For my eldest son, a 9-year-old, we laid out a mission: to grill our July 4th barbecue cheeseburgers. As we began our very first step—buying food–I suddenly understood how this could work. In the butcher shop, my son asked me where the “round circle” hamburgers were. He had no idea what ground beef really looked like or how it was made. I was ashamed. And then I showed him.
At home, he donned his personalized apron and got to work, cracking eggs and kneading the meat with his bare hands. I thought he would be grossed out but he was beaming with pride. He formed and grilled the patties, sliced the tomatoes, and babysat his burgers, feeling scared occasionally from the heat on the grill. I don’t think I have ever seen my son eat a burger so fast in his life. He watched all of us eat ours, too. He was so grateful, he even washed the dishes.
Lego Lessons on Money
Teaching my children to be grateful for their toys was very challenging because they just have so many. So I decided to challenge them with the one they love the most: Legos.
I had noticed that my children were expecting me to buy them one set after another. They are often gorgeous and elaborate, ranging from remote- controlled passenger trains to majestic models of famous buildings like the Burj Khalifa and the Eiffel Tower. This year, Lego launched a Disney Princess line with a set that resembles Cinderella’s castle at Disney theme parks. Even the smallest details of a set, like wine goblets, roast chickens, antennae, almost always connect with a signature, satisfactory Lego snap. Kids like mine are infatuated with those details and, thus, with Lego overall. The problematic part I noticed was that when my kids tried to make something using solely their own creativity, they became quickly dissatisfied with their attempt and then they would start asking me to buy them more sets.
My first instinct was to swear off Lego, but I have always resolved to be fair and honest with my kids. To pretend to not be able to afford certain things is not a good lesson either and hardly will teach them gratitude. I decided to make them more grateful for their current collection and get them to see them as a strategic investment.
As with our our July 4th cheeseburgers, I brought my children in on the buying process. I decided to physically bring them to an actual brick-and-mortar Lego store and teach them how to shop smart. Now that I shop for everything online, I forget what kind of impact shopping with the kids can have. Kids can never grow up to be good consumers unless I teach them how to recognize value and quality and there is no better medium for teaching kids this than with the subject in which they have the most expertise: toys.
Once at the Lego store, we headed to the Pick A Brick Wall. They watched other children dumping handfuls of bricks into containers that customers could buy for a fixed price ($7.99 for the small and $14.99 for the large). My kids were about to do the same but I asked them to be more mindful about what they wanted to make and how many bricks they could actually fit into the container. This was incredibly difficult for them.
Just like a kid in a candy store, the Pick A Brick Wall can be overwhelming. You can easily get greedy and forget why you are there, that is, to get a lot of bricks and to get the ones you really want. The space within the container is finite and so was our time. I gave the kids two options: get the small container and not be questioned about its contents or the bigger container but only if they followed my lesson on being resourceful. I would pay for only one option. They chose the latter. So to gain the most value for our money, I asked them to snap a row of same-color bricks together and then carefully place them into the container. It was a time-consuming process, best done sitting on the floor of the store.
Once they started, though, it was so obvious to my children that they could put a lot more bricks and pieces in with this method. The store employees smiled and said that they have never seen anyone do that before. Passerby parents asked their kids to do the same; none of them would. My kids started to become embarrassed but I reminded them of that other option—a smaller container and fewer Legos.
After all that hard work of stacking as many as 270 (1×4) bricks into that one container, they poured in their favorite pieces into the many gaps between the stacks. These were tiny translucent studs that they use as “treasures” when they play. Since then, my kids have become more enthusiastic about building and take better care of the bricks they own.
Now, they always go to their favorite bricks first, the ones they worked so hard to get. At least for their beloved Lego bricks, they certainly are grateful. I also constantly remind them that the minute they stop showing gratitude for their toys is the minute I start packing them up to send away to relatives or for donation. Or sometimes, while they are off at school, I will just pack up the toys and games that haven’t been touched and, months later, mysteriously bring them out again.
As parents, despite wanting to give our kids everything, one of the greatest gifts we can give is to literally give less, to force decision-making and awareness among all their choices. We need to have more faith in them and let them be challenged. It’s not easy to watch your kids struggle—but in the end, it does breed gratitude. And there is no question that these lessons are most effective if you start early and consistently through every child’s primary occupation: play.
Three Atlantic staffers discuss “The Winds of Winter,” the tenth and final episode of the sixth season.
Every week for the sixth season of Game of Thrones, Christopher Orr, Spencer Kornhaber, and Lenika Cruz discussed new episodes of the HBO drama. Because no screeners were made available to critics in advance this year, we'll be posting our thoughts in installments.
The party's presumptive nominee and the Republican National Committee are working together to avoid a revolt at the July convention, according to The New York Times.
Only a few weeks ahead of the Republican National Convention, Donald Trump is preparing for what’s likely to be a charged event, as some Republicans look to upend the gathering. How? The Republican National Committee and the Trump campaign are threatening to keep those who are not in favor of the party’s nominee from taking speaking slots at the gathering, according to The New York Times.
It’s the culmination of a heated primary season that began with 17Republican presidential candidates and that, over time, narrowed, as Trump swept states across the nation. And right now, it’s unclear if some of those who exited the race will be permitted to speak at the convention, given Trump’s conditions. Take Senator Ted Cruz: He dropped out of the race in May, and he still has not endorsed Trump. But as the Times notes, however much Trump may want to bar the Texas senator, it may not be possible for him to keep Cruz from speaking. That’s because, since Cruz “won a majority of delegates in at least eight states, he would probably be able to have his name entered into nomination, guaranteeing him a speech under party rules.”
It happened gradually—and until the U.S. figures out how to treat the problem, it will only get worse.
It’s 2020, four years from now. The campaign is under way to succeed the president, who is retiring after a single wretched term. Voters are angrier than ever—at politicians, at compromisers, at the establishment. Congress and the White House seem incapable of working together on anything, even when their interests align. With lawmaking at a standstill, the president’s use of executive orders and regulatory discretion has reached a level that Congress views as dictatorial—not that Congress can do anything about it, except file lawsuits that the divided Supreme Court, its three vacancies unfilled, has been unable to resolve.
On Capitol Hill, Speaker Paul Ryan resigned after proving unable to pass a budget, or much else. The House burned through two more speakers and one “acting” speaker, a job invented following four speakerless months. The Senate, meanwhile, is tied in knots by wannabe presidents and aspiring talk-show hosts, who use the chamber as a social-media platform to build their brands by obstructing—well, everything. The Defense Department is among hundreds of agencies that have not been reauthorized, the government has shut down three times, and, yes, it finally happened: The United States briefly defaulted on the national debt, precipitating a market collapse and an economic downturn. No one wanted that outcome, but no one was able to prevent it.
Millions of men in the prime of their lives are missing from the labor force. Could a big U.S. housing construction project bring them back?
Something is rotten in the U.S. economy. Poor men without a college degree are disappearing from the labor force. The share of prime-age men (ages 25-54) who are neither working nor looking for work has doubled since the 1970s.
The U.S.’s labor participation rate for this group of men is lower than every country in the OECD except for Israel (an outlier, because of the high number of non-working Orthodox Jewish men) and Italy (an economic omnishambles). Today, one in six prime-age men in America are either unemployed or out of the workforce altogether—about 10 million men.
So, this is the 10-million-man question: Where did all these guys go?
According to a report from White House economists released last week, non-working prime-age men skew young, are less likely to be parents, are disproportionately black and less educated, and are concentrated in the South.
Critics claim British voters were unqualified to decide such a complicated issue. But democracy itself isn’t the problem.
It’s easy, in retrospect, to characterize David Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership as a colossal blunder, at least from the prime minister’s perspective. The idea was reportedly conceived at a pizza restaurant at Chicago O’Hare airport, an inauspicious place to hatch plans of international consequence. Cameron, by many accounts, promised to stage the vote not because he believed in it, or took it especially seriously, or felt the public was demanding it, but because he wanted to appease right-wing “euroskeptics” in his party ahead of the 2015 election. It worked. Cameron won that election, and soon found himself campaigning for Britain to remain in the European Union. Then a majority of Britons voted to do just the opposite. A disgraced David Cameron now finds himself without a job and his country temporarily without its bearings, in a jolted world. Blunders don’t get much bigger.
The Supreme Court has struck down parts of a major Texas law regulating access to the procedure. To do so, it had to navigate competing claims of medical fact and an intent to protect women.
In a single paragraph, Ruth Bader Ginsburg named something the other U.S. Supreme Court justices wouldn’t: Regulations on abortion providers, often called TRAP laws, are not intended to protect the health of women. In addition to writing a short concurring opinion, Ginsburg joined four other justices in a decision Monday that effectively struck down major components of H.B. 2, a 2013 Texas law that created significant, and arguably unsustainable, requirements for operation procedures at abortion clinics. While the majority opinion methodically countered each of the arguments in defense of the law, which had previously been upheld by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Ginsburg went straight to the point.
A Yale law professor suggests that oft-ignored truth should inform debates about what statutes and regulations to codify.
Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter believes that the United States would benefit if the debate about what laws ought to be passed acknowledged the violence inherent in enforcing them.
Law professors and lawyers instinctively shy away from considering the problem of law’s violence. Every law is violent. We try not to think about this, but we should. On the first day of law school, I tell my Contracts students never to argue for invoking the power of law except in a cause for which they are willing to kill. They are suitably astonished, and often annoyed. But I point out that even a breach of contract requires a judicial remedy; and if the breacher will not pay damages, the sheriff will sequester his house and goods; and if he resists the forced sale of his property, the sheriff might have to shoot him.
This is by no means an argument against having laws.
It is an argument for a degree of humility as we choose which of the many things we may not like to make illegal. Behind every exercise of law stands the sheriff – or the SWAT team – or if necessary the National Guard. Is this an exaggeration? Ask the family of Eric Garner, who died as a result of a decision to crack down on the sale of untaxed cigarettes. That’s the crime for which he was being arrested. Yes, yes, the police were the proximate cause of his death, but the crackdown was a political decree.
The statute or regulation we like best carries the same risk that some violator will die at the hands of a law enforcement officer who will go too far. And whether that officer acts out of overzealousness, recklessness, or simply the need to make a fast choice to do the job right, the violence inherent in law will be on display. This seems to me the fundamental problem that none of us who do law for a living want to face.
It’s not because they’re inherently harsher leaders than men, but because they often respond to sexism by trying to distance themselves from other women.
There are two dominant cultural ideas about the role women play in helping other women advance at work, and they are seemingly at odds: the Righteous Woman and the Queen Bee.
The Righteous Woman is an ideal, a belief that women have a distinct moral obligation to have one another’s backs. This kind of sentiment is best typified by Madeleine Albright’s now famous quote, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” The basic idea is that since all women experience sexism, they should be more attuned to the gendered barriers that other women face. In turn, this heightened awareness should lead women to foster alliances and actively support one another. If women don’t help each other, this is an even worse form of betrayal than those committed by men. And hence, the special place in hell reserved for those women.
On swallowing “sorry”s and replacing them with simple “thank you”s.
There are many things I envy about Tami Taylor, the famously empathetic yet take-no-shit matriarch of Friday Night Lights: her perfect hair, her prodigious wine intake, her ability to always say the right thing. But while watching the show, one thing that really grabbed me was her capacity for casual gratitude.
Casual gratitude is a term I just made up, to distinguish it from the more serious, mindful, let-me-sit-down-and-count-my-blessings practice of gratitude, or the formal gratitude of, say, a thank you note, or a life debt. As the Taylors flurried around their Texas kitchen and the local high school, Tami was always quick to recognize others for the small favors they did for her with a “thank you” or “I appreciate it.” And it’s how she says it. She doesn’t make a big deal out of it, just thanks people casually, but with grace and sincerity, and then she moves on. A simple thank you for a simple kindness.