“Eat your vegetables, there are starving kids in Africa,” is a phrase that we’ve all heard. The message that we should be grateful for what we have because there are millions of people with less is a very common ideology. Which is why quotes like, “Be grateful because someone is praying for what you have now” pop up at least once a week on some inspirational Instagram account. Many of us are trained to turn the guilt that comes from knowing that others are suffering into appreciation for the fact that we ourselves are not suffering in the same way.
This ideal that it could always be worse is used to propel us into a life of contentment and extreme gratitude. When we are feeling down or find ourselves complaining over trivial things, we remind ourselves about those starving kids in Africa and realize that our lives are pretty great. So it makes sense that many would decide to teach that lesson to their kids.
However, let’s think for a second what that this is actually doing. We are setting our kids up to measure their happiness and gratitude by the fact that their lives are better than others, and likewise tying their gratitude to the unhappiness of others. Teaching them that as long as they are ahead of someone else, they should be happy; as long as they have more to eat than others, they should be grateful for the food they have.
Louis C.K once said, “The only time you should be looking in your neighbor’s bowl is to make sure they have enough to eat.” That statement is not only helpful when you have less but also when you have more. If I tell my kids about the starving kids in Africa, it’ll be because we are discussing ways to help them, not to teach my kids to be grateful that they aren’t those kids.
We can’t teach our children from a very young age that their happiness and appreciation is tied to the misfortunes of others and then be surprised when we end up with a school system full of mean girls, bullies, and people who feel the need to one-up others. Instilling a belief that happiness and gratitude comes from the idea that ‘maybe you’re not the best but at least you’re not the worst’ only ensures that our children will constantly be making sure that there is someone beneath them, that there is always someone else that they can compare themselves to and win in that comparison. Or else, what do they have to be grateful for?
Teaching our kids to live in a state of constant comparison is also extremely dangerous because at some point our kids will not come out on top. So many people have a hard time finding happiness because they are constantly aware of those with more. They suddenly see themselves as those starving kids in Africa when comparing themselves to their peers. Being grateful seems impossible when you now see yourself on the bottom. This mindset can carry over into all aspects of our lives. From body image to career achievements and even in the development and behavior of our own children, our level of satisfaction will depend on what those around us are doing.
Of course when we think of the lives of those less fortunate than ourselves we become a little more grateful for our own lives. Realizing how bad something could be can definitely help you to appreciate how good it is. But that can’t be the basis for your gratitude. If you can only appreciate something if someone else doesn’t have it, then that is not gratitude. That is greed and spite.
Finding true gratitude means silencing the rest of the world. It means not being concerned with how little or how much others have. It has nothing to do with fairness or comparison and everything to do with gratefulness. It is the difference between appreciating what you have because you could always have less and appreciating what you have because you have it and it makes you happy.
I want my kids to eat their vegetables because vegetables are healthy and offer the nutrients that they need to grow and develop. I want them to show gratitude for the food I prepare because they love me and appreciate my efforts. I want them to be happy and content with their lives because they truly are happy and content with their lives, not because they have measured it against someone else’s life and have decided that theirs is better. Happiness has to come from within and so does true gratitude.