A couple of years ago, we were living out our busy lives in Bangalore, India. A home in a nice gated community, daily rants about the hideous traffic, and long commutes for our children to their “international” schools were par for the course. Our urban upper-crust bubble was extraordinarily homogenous. It had began to dawn upon me that the vast majority of our meaningful social interactions were with people from a similar socio-economic background, and my children had little or no interaction, understanding or context of our own country, and the way in which the majority of the population lives, thinks or talks.
I work in the social sector, so I tend to be keenly attuned to the dichotomy of my comfortable lifestyle, juxtaposed against my daily work, which is working with people with enormous and often insurmountable social and economic challenges. I began to compare and contrast my childhood, in the 80s and 90s. when the income inequalities were not so stark, to that of my children’s. Growing up in a middle-class family, we did not live in a fancy neighbourhood and we were much more integrated to the larger community, straddling economic and class divides.
My children (no fault of theirs) were growing up thoroughly distanced from the realities of a poor country, blissfully oblivious to their incredible luck in hitting the birth lottery, and therefore automatically and subconsciously entitled. What disturbed me is that it wasn’t my children alone, but all the similarly-placed kids around me, and very few parents seemed aware that this was even a problem.
It took me several months to understand what was happening. I felt we must do something about it. But what? We were consciously travelling a lot within India to expose the kids to our varied heritage. languages and customs. We were admittedly not doing a great job with any kind of volunteering, though we were trying, so that remained a possible goal to keep working towards. My husband and I had also been having long conversations about the meaning and purpose of life, what it means to be happy, and what we could do to raise kids that were less entitled, less selfish, more empathetic and more resilient. These conversations led to us thinking a lot more about gratitude, an emotion that we personally saw as being very scarce amongst most people we knew. We all know that cultivating an attitude of gratitude impacts our mood, turns our focus outward rather than inward, helping us become more empathetic, happier and more resilient.
I grew up in a family which struggled financially, and where we always seemed to have less than many of our more fortunate family and friends. I attribute my own empathy, resilience and optimism to my upbringing and parents who have always been serenely content with their lot, despite all the curveballs life threw at them. My parents always impressed upon me the concept of Prasada Bhavana from Indian spiritual teachings. Accept whatever comes to you as God’s offering and accept everything cheerfully and be grateful to Him. When I was younger, I used to mistakenly conflate this with fatalism, but as I grew older I understood that it means something far deeper. Be thankful for what you have and also for what you have not been given. Indeed, this is the only way to live to peacefully and happily.
Was there a way to make the kids more grateful? Our family started an experiment a year ago. Every night, at dinner, no excuses, we spend a few minutes asking each family member to recount atleast three things they are grateful for that day, and atleast one thing they did to help someone or make someone happier. The trick is to be genuine and mindful. In the early days, the kids (and I!) struggled. It’s hard to come up with 3 things to be grateful for in a crappy day. But wait….is it really? Even on a crappy day, I have good food on the table, a lovely home to come back to, 2 beautiful children, a loving family and wonderful close friends….so….that was not so bad was it??? Sometimes the kids would fall over themselves at the last minute to do a little chore for me because they hadn’t helped anyone that day! Sometimes it did seem a little manufactured and fake.
However, over a period of several months, all of us got into the habit of being consciously grateful for the many blessings, big and small, in our lives. It could be as ordinary as my daughter being grateful for having had pizza for dinner, or me smelling a beautiful flower during my walk. My son could have helped a classmate at school (way to go!) or, on a slow day, only managed to help clear the table after dinner. Everything counted.
We expanded the activity to include an annual end-of-year exercise to capture everyone’s top learnings, accomplishments, things to be grateful for, and goals for the following year. One could extend this in several different pathways creatively. For example, we spent one evening talking about every emotion we experienced during the last year. When did we feel most happy, most disappointed, most angry etc. These reflections not only get us to know each other better, they allow a safe space for all to analyze, take stock and calmly move on.
Cut to a more than a year later, I think back on what we achieved.
Our family is definitely more grateful for all that we have! We are closer, more connected, more mindful. I personally feel more centered and conscious of when I am not fully present for the people that matter. I am more proactive about being in the moment, and can reset quickly when I am not. For someone who tends to have a million different things running through her mind all the time, this has been a big achievement!
The children are more centered too. They have learnt to articulate and contemplate their feelings and emotions better than before. Are they more empathetic? I don’t know, but they know they need to be! Are they more resilient? Only time will tell, though I strongly feel that their can-do attitude and calm courage while negotiating a big cross-continent transition this year, is due in big part to the Gratitude Project!
Many years ago, someone presented my daughter a book called “It could’ve been worse” by A. Benjamin, for her 3rd birthday. Long after all the baby books have been given away, this book still adorns our bookshelf. A beautiful book talking about the narrow escapes a baby mouse has as he navigates the big bad world on his way home to his mother, the message is that however bad things may be going for you, it could’ve been worse! Focusing on the positive aspect of a bad situation has helped us out many a time when one of the kids has had a meltdown over a trivial incident.
There have been some crazy moments too. Last October, we were flying to Bhutan for a week’s holiday. We managed to miss our connecting flight from Delhi. I was devastated. Not only did we now have to book another (very expensive) flight to Thimpu the next day, we would also lose a day of sightseeing in Thimpu. Plus, we would have to shell out money for a night’s stay in Delhi. At that low moment, my husband gathered all of us around. He said “What can we find to be grateful for in this situation?”. I glared at him. “Are you kidding me? This is NOT the time to do the grateful exercise!”, I hissed. He coolly replied “Not at all. This is the exact right time to do it”. My son immediately piped up. “This is Delhi! We get great paneer here. Let’s go out to eat!” My daughter said “Yay! I am grateful we missed our flight. Now maybe you’ll only get business class tickets!” (we did have to fly business class the next day, a thing that the kids remain grateful for to this day :))
We made excellent progress in the last year, but we have miles to go before we sleep. This project has opened up so many possibilities and profoundly changed my own perceptions of what it takes to succeed at the business of life. It has also confirmed my own long-held intuition about what it means to be a good parent. Our cultural constructs force us (unconsciously or otherwise) to narrowly define “achievement” in terms of success in a few areas (academic, sports etc). While these are important and worth pursuing, it’s also very key to focus on hardwiring other skills such as empathy, gratitude and kindness. In my own experience and observations of parents over several years, the amount of effort parents put into raising their kids is disproportionately weighted in favour of what society automatically thinks of when we think “achievement”. Helping our kids (and ourselves too) become stronger is necessary, not just in body but in mind too!