A while back, Deb Levine's daughter was in Target and overheard this conversation in the aisles: "Well, things could be better," the stranger said to someone on the other end of the line, "but I know I'm really blessed."
Levine, a well-known Oakland parenting expert and educator, said her daughter thinks about that random snippet of talk often—if and when she's feeling down herself. "It reminds her to think about the good in her life," Levine said, adding that she is grateful that both of her daughters, now ages 14 and 16, are grateful human beings.
And Levine took the time to explain five strategies she has used as a parent to help them turn out that way.
"We strive to eat together six out of seven nights a week," Levine said.
Eating together, and more importantly, talking to each other, are especially important when the children are younger, she said. "We go around the table and ask, 'How was your day?' or 'What are you thankful for?' or 'What was good about your day?'" Levine said.
Levine said she realizes that having a set mealtime could be next to impossible for most families. But she said it's not the meal or the specific hour that's important; it's the time families make for each other. Maybe it's breakfast, maybe it's teatime, maybe it's a goodnight ritual before bed. "All you have to
do is say, 'Good morning,' and incorporate that ritual into your family life that involves the practice of talking and asking," she said.
Recently, Levine learned the payoff for these sit-down meals. Her 14-year-old had a school assignment to record a family conversation, and so she set down the iPhone at dinner and let it roll. When her daughter started listening to it and realized how family members interacted with each other, she said to her mom, "We really like each other. I'm lucky."
Chores should be age-dependent, Levine said, and now that her daughters are in high school, she's assigned them to make dinner two nights a week.
Chores help the household run and should be doled out to anyone in the house who is able. "Chores teach you to have purpose and to have family pride," Levine said, "which in turn makes you more grateful."
This summer, Levine asked her girls to figure out what they wanted to cook and then jot down what ingredients they needed at the store. The rules are simple: The girls cook the meals and Levine and her husband eat the food, no matter what it tastes like, without complaint. That includes the burnt macaroni and cheese and raw garlic tasting meal. Levine said it serves as a useful reminder about how hard it is to knock out an A-plus meal for the family each night.
(Think: Don't complain next time you don't like what mom made for dinner.) "We just said, 'Thank you for cooking,' " Levine recalled.
Her daughters now scour books and the internet for recipes, and the meals have improved. "We show them we are grateful for what they do, and they feel as though they have met and achieved their goals," Levine said.
While Levine certainly wouldn't discourage anyone from volunteering, she isn't a huge fan of the Christmas Day soup kitchen effort. "It can ring hollow if it's just occasional," she said, "and it can feel forced."
What she does instead is try to expose her children to people who are more privileged and less privileged than they are and then talk about the differences. "We're continually discussing the fact that we have a roof over our heads," Levine said, "but we don't have a second ski house." When her family went through a home remodel and moved from place to place for six months, she talked about how much stress they felt and compared it to how homeless people must feel every day.
Conversely, her daughters sometimes have the opportunity to be with very wealthy people and have noticed, at times, that there is an air of ungratefulness about some people in particular that they don't want to emulate.
Levine coaches her children to think positively, and she uses the-glass-is-half-full-or-half-empty paradigm as her teaching tool. The glass has the same amount of water in it, she tells them; it's how you think about what's in the glass that is important. "If you look at it half full," she has told her daughters on several occasions, "you'll be a lot happier."
Let's say one of her daughters complains about not having the right soccer shoe; Levine will respond: "I get that. But can you think about what you do have?"
She said that usually elicits something like this—at least eventually: "Well, I guess I like my uniform. And I like my teammates. And I'm pretty good at soccer."
Levine said that she is continually reminding her daughters that "it's up to you about how you want to look at life," and then she helps them problem-solve to get to a more optimistic and grateful place.
Levine said she and her husband are lenient with their children and what activities they want to do, but their girls have to be honest and upfront with them about what they're really doing. She will let her girls take BART and Muni all the way to the beach in San Francisco with friends, but if she finds out that they went somewhere else and didn't tell her, well, there's going to be no leniency. "All you have to do is give them a severe consequence," Levine said, "and they're not going to do it again."
So, how do these boundaries create a sense of gratefulness? Again, Levine's 14-year-old recently told her that she feels sad for her friends whose parents don't track their whereabouts as they gallivant all over the Bay Area with little or no oversight. "I'm grateful you guys care about me," she told her parents.