It's a warm mid-October afternoon, and I've just unloaded mountain bikes from the van in preparation for a fall ride. First, the trusty tank of a bike I got in college, then my son's smaller ride. I remember scoring it at a thrift store, having it tuned up and excitedly presenting it to him. What a lucky kid, I thought. To have a bike—
"I want a new bike!" my 8-year-old stated, jarring me into the present.
I looked at him. His blond hair catching slices of sun. His clothes fitting exact specifications: not too short, long, loose or tight. His belly full and his scratches covered in fresh Band-Aids.
His wanting more.
Am I raising grateful kids? I thought, as anger bubbled up and erupted: "This is a great bike. You are lucky to have it!" His body deflated. My tone conveyed that he'd done something wrong, but he wasn't sure what.
It's not his fault. It's easy to fall into the abyss of wanting. As a kid I pored through toy catalogs circling what I wanted, which was basically everything. As an adult I untangle wants and needs and repeat enough — a privilege in itself.
I regretted berating him because I know that gratitude can't be dictated. It is cultivated through practice, by listening and persevering. I shouldn't expect my kids to give profuse thanks for every bike, full plate or warm bed. It's like asking them to be grateful for their thumbs. It's not that they're not grateful for them; they've just always been around.
Still, news of tragedies, displacement and suffering traverses the globe so quickly, my brain struggles to process it all. Against this backdrop, I look at my kids and wonder if they see all that they have.
The evening after our ride I asked my son over dinner: "What are you thankful for?"
It wasn't a topic new to our table, but this time he could sense it was a prompt. As silence ensued, a voice inside my head said: You cannot pull gratitude out of him. It doesn't work that way.
"Um." He looked pained. "I'm sorry, I just can't think of anything." He's never been good on the spot. I felt desperate for asking; I knew he was more than his reply. "Wait, nature?" he asked. Was that an acceptable answer?
It was misguided to expect my child to articulate all he's thankful for. My fear that he doesn't see all that surrounds him left me flailing, and I put too much weight on his answer.
In the days that followed, I realized how the time I spent worrying if my children are grateful is itself a luxury. So instead I turned to question myself: As a parent, as a person, what am I thankful for? Do I see all that surrounds me?
There's so much.
I'm grateful that my body is strong and healthy. That I can feel the crisp pluck of pulling an apple from the tree, then collapse inside the taste of it. That I can dig my nose into my daughter's hair and smell fresh air and the ocean. I'm thankful when I hear water roiling in a kettle when my windows are layered with ice. I'm thankful for the smell of my mother's chicken soup, and her unrelenting patience. For the notes my husband leaves for me; for my family and my friends that are like family.
And I'm especially grateful that I'm repeating this question to myself. Because if I didn't, I might have missed when my daughter asked her grandmother if she could help with anything in the kitchen. Or when she thanked me for carrying her backpack. I might have overlooked the time my son asked his sister if she was OK after a fall, or when he stuck up for a kid who was being bullied. Or when he thanked me for making his favorite meal.
And I might have been too wracked with worry to remember when he and I were biking and he told me that he loved how we did this thing together, just him and me. And that when we rode through the quiet of falling leaves he said, just loud enough, "It's so beautiful here."