One way to turn our focus to our many blessings is to learn from the pros–the very same children who we claim are too fixated on stuff. While at times they seem to take all their cues from TV commercials and shopping mall culture, they are also masters at appreciating the little things. The sages say that God is in the details. Children are specialists in the holy details. Just as the yetzer hara (bad inclination) leads them to pester you about toys and clothes, the same source also provides natural exuberance and appreciation of life in all its limitless glory:
“Watch this, Dad! When the wind blows in one direction all the grass lies down flat, then when it blows the other way, the grass flips over! I’m not kidding. Come see this!”
“Can we stay here at the zoo all day and come back tomorrow?”
“I hope I can see Elana today. I miss her so much. I think I have best friend fever.”
“I can have rainbow and chocolate sprinkles on my ice cream? This is the best day of my life!”
Get on the Level…Their Level
You may have to slow down to appreciate what enthralls, astonishes, charms, and tickles your child. Go out back to see the teeny red worm. Sit down with the class picture and let your daughter tell you every single name. Save time when your son visits your office to let him make five photocopies of his hand in slightly different positions. Listen and ask questions when he tells you about the refrigerator the size of a room that he saw on his class trip to the supermarket.
Susanna and I were riding bikes in our neighborhood when we passed a dead animal on the street. She wanted to circle back to see it. I agreed. We studied the squirrel and its innards for a little while. “Not a lot of moms would do this, you know,” my grateful child said.
Children can be cheap dates if you know where to take them. Show them how to make egg whites and sugar explode into satiny billows, teach them how to use an old-fashioned handheld drill. When you’re tucking them in the night before the school play, offer a real back rub with massage oil. Their gratitude and uninhibited enthusiasm can be contagious, but you have to slow down and make these moments a priority or else you’ll both miss out.
Be Grateful for Everything
Formalizing the ritual of blessings so that it becomes a habit is another way to teach children to remember what they’ve been given. We tend to want to send God “wish lists” of the things we want, rather than remembering to thank him for what we already have. In our house we go around the table each week at Shabbat dinner and say our “gratitudes.” This ritual has multiple benefits. It’s often a chance to catch up with one another on the goings-on of the week, and it teaches the children what their father and I value. I might tell Emma: “I’m grateful that you got dressed and ready for breakfast all week long without any reminding,” and continue to the rest of the group, I’m grateful that Uncle Sol is feeling better. I’m grateful that Josie is here to join us for dinner. I’m grateful that I finished another chapter of my book this week.”
A friend told me that shortly before her birthday, her four-year-old said, “I’m grateful that I don’t have any homework this weekend. I’m grateful that Dina said I can keep her scooter all day tomorrow. I’m grateful that I got to help Daddy pick out a pearl necklace for Mommy’s birthday. ”
Stopping before eating in order to bless food is a ubiquitous religious practice because it’s a natural–every time we eat we have a choice between gluttony or gratitude to God. The rabbis really refined this one. There are special blessings for different occasions and different kinds of food. All of these prayers can help build an attitude of gratitude throughout the day. You’ll know you’ve made an impact when you overhear your young child saying a blessing over her dolls’ party: “Josephina, don’t forget to say thank you to God for the cupcakes and tea.”
Excerpted with permission from The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Scribner).