In Montessori, we often speak of gratitude with the children. It’s an important concept to understand. The holiday season brings out the gratitude in all of us so it seemed like a good time to discuss the subject on our blog. I have generally thought of gratitude in terms of the feeling one gets upon receiving a gift. It doesn’t have to be a tangible gift and very often, the best gifts we receive are not. When writing or speaking about gratitude, my thoughts turn to our immediate area and the privileged life that so many of our children live. With my own children, I am ever-conscious of the opportunities I am given to help them value all that they have. My wife is far better at this than I, but still we forget and let so many of them pass unnoticed.
There is a simple but often forgotten concept -that life itself is something for which we should all be grateful. But I, and maybe many of you, have often struggled with turning this thought into an expression. I will admit that at times my gratitude is nowhere to be found. Given that, how do I help a child to do what I cannot? Is it possible to raise a child who will seek out those in need of help instead of ignoring them? Will our children grow to learn that they must protect and value life? Can we empower our children to consciously live a life of gratitude? These are the ever-present wonderings of parents and Montessori teachers all over the world.
Seeking inspiration for this blog post, I stumbled upon a TED talk by Brother David Steindl-Rast. I had never heard of him before and I still don’t know a great deal about him, but his words really resonated with me so I thought I’d share some of them. He’s certainly devoted a lot of time to thinking about gratitude and I, for one, am grateful that I found him. Not coincidentally, you can find his work on a website called Gratefulness.org. There, I found an article he wrote in September 2001after the terrorist attacks http://www.gratefulness.org/readings/dsr_reason.htm. I found it so interesting that an article written during the most horrific act of violence in our nation’s history more than a decade ago, could so easily have been written today. The following quote really jumped out at me:
“You can either feel grateful or alienated but never both at the same time.”
Maybe the first step in sharing gratitude with our children is to agree on its importance. The above quote sums it up for me very nicely. Simply put, a sense of gratitude doesn’t simply fill an empty void. It takes the place of negativity; anger, worry, selfishness, loneliness and spite. At the same time, feeling and expressing gratitude goes along very well with positivity; love, calm, empathy, peace, common sense and a sense of belonging. This may be one of the most compelling reasons to live a life of gratitude. Because if you aren’t, you’re just leaving room for negativity -which I think we all can agree is no way to live.
All that negativity is an adult concept. It’s out there waiting for all of us. Without thought and effort, no adult is immune. But there is no place for negativity in a child’s heart unless we adults create space for it. On the other hand, gratitude is there already -along with joy, love and all the other things on which so many adults maintain a tenuous grasp. As children grow, life will offer more and more opportunity for that negativity to creep in, but if gratitude answers the door when anger and worry come knocking, they will find no room for entry.
Yes, gratitude is already there, but it must be shared in order to grow. I once read somewhere that “feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like receiving a gift and not opening it.” Indeed, if the gift of gratitude is never truly opened, how can we expect our children to know it when they see it? How will they know it is there in the first place? The difficult thing about gratitude is that without a conscious effort, we can easily lose sight of it. Therefore, we must make feeling and expressing gratitude a habit. Brother David Steindl-Rast says this can be done by finding ways to remind ourselves to be grateful. In his Ted talk, he says it is as easy as following the same simple process of crossing the road “Stop. Look. Go.” It’s not a novel concept. “Stop and smell the roses” people say. It’s not because roses are great, it’s because if you stop every once in a while, you’re much more likely to catch the things in life that you don’t want to miss. Gratitude is definitely one of those things.
What’s the hardest part about the “Stop. Look. Go.” idea? I think for most of us, it’s the stopping. Adults and children alike. Montessori teachers do all we can to slow children down because we know with time comes opportunity. We show them how to carry one thing at a time. We move slowly, we talk slowly. Each new lesson is presented in a manner that is painfully slow for most adults and even some children who have been overly influenced by a world that constantly tells them to speed up. The “looking” part isn’t tough. It’s not that we can’t look around, or that when we look around we can’t see. It’s certainly not the “go” part. Most of us have an abundance of that -and there’s always coffee for those of us who don’t.
Once you get going though, stopping is difficult, but it’s not impossible. If you’ve stopped long enough to make it through this rambling post, you’re part of the way there already. Now you just need to look around for the opportunities. Again, Steindl-Rast has a thought: He says “that we speak of “given” circumstances is significant. Whatever is given is gift; and the appropriate response to any gift is gratitude.” If we look at life and our circumstances, (both good and bad) as gifts, if we recognize that time itself is a gift, we cannot help but find opportunities to express our gratitude.
Enjoy the holiday season and the many gifts it brings.