At this moment, I have two beautiful children sleeping peacefully beside me. Well, one is beside me. The other is snuggled between my knees, wrapped in a combination of the quilt and the bottom hem of my thick, red bathrobe. I can't move without waking them both, so I'm trying to type instead.
I look around my house, my life, and I should feel so lucky all the time. I should wake up brilliantly happy every morning, fling open the windows and sing good morning to the world. I have a home, a spouse, and three healthy children. We have luxuries that most people on this Earth would die for and do die without. And yet each day there is at least one little thing that causes me to grimace or scowl, to get annoyed or upset.
Please don't get me wrong -- I'm generally a pretty happy person! But what is it in human nature that makes us often ungrateful for all the blessings we have?How can we possibly get upset about small irritations when we know there are so many people in this world who have nothing? Did I really heave a sigh this morning because the sneakers I spent $80 on are already starting to look a bit dingy? Where do these feelings of entitlement begin, and when do they begin?
My eldest daughter is seven years old. Lately, nothing I do seems to be good enough for her, and she is quick to yell at everyone in the family about little things. Her first seven years, oh! she was such a happy child. All smiles and light and delight. But suddenly, it's as if she thinks the world revolves around her and we should all work to make her happy.
Here's an example: I make breakfast for my three children and hand their plates to them. My daughter takes one look at the food, sigh-grunts (an actual thing seven-year-olds can do, apparently) and tells me she doesn't like eggs this way and wanted the cheese on the side. I tell her I thought she liked it this way, and she rolls her eyes so dramatically that I am quite sure she has snapped several ligaments in her sockets.
I want to say, "There are starving children in Africa!", but am so reminded of the times my own mother said this that I stop myself. I want to say, "I slaved over a hot stove all morning to make this for you!", but again, the mother thing. How can I help my children to understand that they are extremely fortunate?
Ship them to a third-world country:
My husband's family is from the Philippines. Very rural Philippines. I have visited their home twice, both times before having children, and was astonished at the level of poverty I witnessed in the neighborhoods. Most people don't have electricity in their homes. Houses are built out of whatever scraps they find lying around. You are considered wealthy if you have an indoor kitchen and refrigerator. They are routinely devastated by landslides, typhoons, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. It's 100 degrees F and outrageously humid. It's a little smelly.
And yet, the people of the Philippines are some of the happiest and most generous people in the world. If you stop to visit someone, they will always offer you food, even if they have barely enough for themselves. They will not hesitate to share whatever they have, and the lucky ones who make it out of poverty work tirelessly to buoy their relatives and raise them up. Any Filipino-American traveling back for a visit will pack huge balik bayan boxes -- care packages full of food, medicine, clothes and supplies. This surely must be the country that started the phrase, "He would give you the shirt off his back."
When I first arrived in the Philippines, I was startled by the children I saw running and playing along the dirt roads. They were skinny and dusty, clothed in t-shirts and shorts that appeared to have been handed down since the mid-1990s. They ate rice and fish and fruit for every meal. These children don't have their own bedrooms, often don't even have their own beds, and yet were smiling and laughing and playing. I never once heard a child say, "Ugh, rice AGAIN?!" And they participated in the chores, working hard every day to help their families survive. Ah ha! Ding ding ding! I may have found the answer.
Working for what you have makes you grateful for what you have:
Our children do have chores. They have to help load and unload the dishwasher, pick up their toys, vacuum the rug, practice piano, and do their homework. But think about those things: a dishwasher? toys? a vacuum? a piano? they get to go to school?! Good grief. These things can barely be described as work, and yet our children complain about doing them. All the luxuries of my life have spoiled my children. But wait. How can I blame my children for being spoiled when I am raising them in the modern first-world?
It can be argued that each American generation over the last 100 years has gotten softer, more entitled, less hard working. I'm not trying to have a political discussion here. This isn't about Democrats or Republicans or welfare or the 1%. This idea applies across the board to basically everyone except farmers, the homeless, and survivalists living off the grid. So much of our lives are automated and computerized that with every passing year we forget how to do some of the most basic chores. How can our children learn to use elbow grease if we parents don't really have any need for it? Do you know how to grow and preserve your own food? Can you sew a shirt or pair of pants? Do you know how to change the oil in your car or fix a radiator hose? When is the last time you had to chop down a tree? For all the unhappiness in our country, there are millions of us who have electricity, internet access, cable tv, indoor plumbing, and grocery stores full of food. Yes, there are many people in this country struggling to survive, but the rest of us really need to figure out a way to be grateful for what we have.
When everything in life is handed to you, it looses it's value. When talking to my husband about the poverty in the Philippines, he once said, "It's all relative. A rich woman in the United States might be just as stressed about having the wrong shade of lipstick as a poor man will be about not having enough food to eat." We will always find things to complain about, things to be stressed about. The real challenge is putting our stressors into perspective. If you are upset about your $80 sneakers or lipstick color, you should instantly write a check to Oxfam or Habitat for Humanity or Heifer International. You should instantly make a list of 10 things you see around you that are unique to first-world countries. You should volunteer at your local food shelter or public school. And you should take your children along with you, because for every eye-roll and sigh-grunt a seven-year old produces, another seven-year old is somewhere, gaunt and filthy, struggling to survive.