From adversity comes appreciation
By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.
At Thanksgiving many families have a tradition of pausing to acknowledge blessings. All family members are encouraged to identify that for which they are grateful, and the individual expression of blessings leads to a cumulative appreciation of the bounty in life. This is something about Thanksgiving people look forward to. Some people, though, have learned to express their gratitude every day throughout the year. An “attitude of gratitude” can help us weather life’s difficulties by keeping us ever mindful of our many blessings. A grateful attitude can also be applied in the face of adversity. One gift we can bequeath our children is to teach them the habit of appreciating their blessings and identifying the hidden blessings in adversity.
Our children can be taught to cultivate an attitude of gratitude. Although some children seem temperamentally inclined towards being grateful, parents should not assume that all children instinctively know how to count their blessings. Children can be helped to make a gratitude list in which they identify all for which they feel grateful. Parents can offer suggestions including concrete things such as food, clothes, toys, and shelter, before moving on to relationships with family, friends, pets, teachers, and coaches. Children can be taught to offer thanks for health, safety, and for living in a free country. This activity can be performed in the context of prayer as in giving thanks to God “from whom all blessings flow.” When children learn to operate from awareness of blessings, they are more likely to be generous to others. Conversely, when children are not conscious of blessings, they are more likely to cling to what they have and to grab for all they can get.
“When children learn to operate from awareness of blessings, they are more likely to be generous to others.”
What about adversity, though? How can we help our children learn an approach to life in which they give thanks for their blessings, but also give thanks for adversity? One thing parents can do to assist children is to help them find the hidden blessings in their difficulties. When parents reflect upon our own lives, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we learned more from our difficulties than we ever learned from times when things were going well. One common blessing from adversity is increased compassion for others. Another such blessing is the knowledge that we can persevere in the face of hardship. When children suffer misfortune in life, such as parental divorce, disability, illness, peer problems, or poverty, they can be shown how the experience has changed them for the better by making them more empathic through increased awareness of the misfortunes faced by others.
The all too common childhood experience of being teased or even bullied is one type of misfortune that requires parents to provide empathic support for the child and advocate for the bullying to end. A less obvious aspect of helping children cope with this experience involves assisting them to see the seeds of compassion therein. Children who are hurt through teasing or bullying can realize that the experience, though painful, gives them insight and increased empathy for others. To facilitate this awareness parents might say “You are dealing with something that is very difficult and I wish you did not have to experience this. Even though this situation is hard, I want you to understand you are gaining something very valuable from it. Because you now know how bad it feels to be bullied, you are not as likely to bully someone else. Perhaps you will even reach out to comfort someone who has been bullied by letting them know you understand what they are going through.” The lesson of finding the hidden blessing in being bullied could easily be missed, so it’s up to parents to make this lesson explicit to children. It’s never too soon in life to help children realize that the adversity they experience can change them in positive ways in terms of increased compassion for others, and for this they can give thanks.