The Eleventh Commandment
Teach your children gratitude. Call it the eleventh commandment, and the first rule of parenting. It’s also a pseudo mantra at Stand Up, where part of the organisation’s mission is to make mensches out of the Jewish school children and teenagers who participate in our social justice programs.
Many of our Jewish children are so incredibly lucky to get everything they need as well as a whole lot of what they want, just by virtue of being born in Australia and not, in say, Bangladesh. It is imperative to remember that for every privately schooled Jewish child, there are several who are not. For every Jewish child who enjoys an annual trip to Surfers/Bali/Thailand, there are many, many more who attend daily childcare on the school holidays so that their parents can go to work.
Gratitude is something that should be practised and valued by the community as a whole, so that it is in turn practised and understood by our children. There is so much to be grateful for, starting with the fact that so many of our ancestors arrived traumatised to this new country, with few possessions and no networks, yet managed to build a flourishing, engaged, resourceful and (largely) supportive community of institutions, synagogues, schools and centres. Being grateful for that fact inspires many individuals who work with newly arrived refugees who are struggling to build their own similarly cohesive community. School children who have the opportunity to hear the incredible stories from recent arrivals from war torn countries often gain a quick insight into how lucky, the “lucky country” really is.
Feeling fortunate is good for children. Many academics have concluded there to be a strong correlation between gratitude and good marks, levels of life satisfaction as well as social integration. Understanding and expressing gratitude has also been linked to lower levels of mental illness such as depression.
So how to teach it? First hand experience is best. Many local organisations engage young people on social justice issues, instilling them with a sense of responsibility for each other and their community. Stand Up’s program for bar and bat-mitzvah aged students, for example, teaches them how to ‘connect the dots’ between their deep Jewish tradition, filled with values of justice and equity, and some of the toughest 21st century ‘plagues’: social cohesion, poverty and the distribution of wealth. Participants plan a “social action project” with their families, enabling them to make an immediate change in the world. One student recently collected books, donating them to a literacy foundation. Others have chosen to volunteer with organisations catering to those with disabilities. Yet another who had a family member with serious illness organised for her friends to write get well cards to random patients in the hospital where the family member spent time.
Beyond entrusting our children to organisations, it is important that gratitude becomes part of our daily ritual and reflection. As parents, we of course play the role of informal educators too! In our increasingly hectic lives, there are fewer opportunities for our children and teenagers to stop, look and reflect. We wait less time for things and accordingly have no patience. Television shows and movies are available on demand, goods are ordered online and the occasional waiting in queues only means more time for Instagram, snapchat and Kik. More time on our devices means kids and teens (and us grown ups) are encouraged to focus on what we don’t have, the parties we are not invited to, the holidays we don’t get or the clothes we can’t afford, instead of thinking about how lucky we are. A simple practice of sharing with our children what we are thankful for at dinner (or breakfast, or before bed) can be an effective tool. The good car spot at work, the sunshine during lunch break, a favourite snack in the lunchbox or even tuck shop day at school are all perfect examples of the little things we can be grateful for that we can share. Parents, try asking your child what they were grateful for at school that day, you may get a better answer than to the question, how was your day?
Kids in Philanthropy is another organisation that aims to develop a social conscience in children by providing opportunities for children to engage with important social issues first hand. It’s annual Hangout for the Homeless encourages families to “sleep out” in order to raise funds and awareness about homelessness.
Exposing our children and teens to the social ills of the world at even the youngest ages in a sensitive and meaningful way has the exact opposite effect of their exposure to social media. It teaches them about what they do have, about the opportunities open to them by virtue of their socio-economic status, and about the advantages they have via their stable family and established community backgrounds. It teaches them the elusive value that it is the ultimate expression of gratitude: grace.
Children who cherish the possessions they do have will hopefully grow into responsible and charitable adults. And those that practice gratitude develop a better appreciation for the heritage and traditions that make their family, friends and community special and unique. For according to the legendary Rabbi Abraham Heschel, “Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. Get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.”
So remember the eleventh commandment. Don’t throw away toys, donate them to a charity. Doing a spring clean? Many organisations will gladly come and pick those goods up for you. Have a few spare hours on the weekend or during the week? Volunteer with an organisation that needs help! The things we take for granted are often the very things that someone else is praying for.
This piece was originally published in the Australian Jewish News on the 12th March 2015