Any parent of teenagers knows how much the world seems to revolve around their teen. Their needs. Their time. Their wants. Their whims. In a teenager’s universe, they are the sun around which everything else revolves. It’s natural, given their age and stages of development. But that doesn’t mean it’s any fun to be around.
I remember the summer between my Junior and Senior year of high school, my dad had been invited to a speaking engagement in Alaska, and decided to take our whole family along for the trip. A dream scenario, right? The sun stays up until midnight, there’s wildlife, glaciers, ATV trips and helicopter tours. But how did I respond? With a genuine, full blown, teenage temper tantrum. I didn’t want to be away from my friends. I didn’t want to miss out on what was sure to be the most epic week of the summer. So I pouted and stayed miserable and literally stayed locked inside the hotel room for at least one full solid day in protest to the injustice that is a teenager forced to go to Alaska for a family vacation.
Who, in the actual world, did I think I was???
Teenagers are really good at creating angst where there isn’t genuine angst to be felt. They’re good at bringing in drama where no natural drama exists. They’re fantastic at setting the emotional temperature of the room and bringing the whole room down with them if they aren’t feeling all that great.
So what’s a parent to do?
Spoiler alert: Lectures, anger and frustration don’t accomplish what we tend to think they will. But gratitude? Gratitude can change the game.
In his TED Talk, writer AJ Jacobs talks about the quest he went on to thank every single person involved in the making of his morning cup of coffee. This started with the barista at the local coffee shop he frequented. But it took him to Columbia where the beans were grown and he met the farmers responsible farming them, to the city of New York that allowed for the clean water that made up 98% of cup of coffee he was drinking, to Indiana where the metal used to prepare the machinery used on the beans was exported internationally. Over the course of his journey he became more and more aware of how expansive the list of people was involved in the preparing of the one delicious cup of coffee. And what Jacobs noticed was, the more intentional he became about expressing gratitude, the more opportunities to express gratitude showed up.
But that wasn’t all. He actually found himself more in tune with the needs of people around him. The more gratitude he felt and communicated, the more empathetic and emotionally in tune with the world around him he became. And that changed things for him.
The truth is, I deserved a swift kick in the pants for the teenage drama I subjected my family to. I was in Alaska, and in order to make a point and make everyone else around me feel as miserable as I was, I stayed in my room. That is ridiculous. Seriously. But I think the trip could have turned out differently if I had a different objective than to expose as many people as possible to my teenage angst. I wonder how different it could have turned out if I had decided that instead of finding something to be angry about I had found something to be grateful for. Because gratitude begets gratitude.
Because gratitude has this way of turning the lens around. It moves the focus off of ourselves and out into the world. In other words, gratitude gives perspective. And if there is one thing teenagers could use more of, it’s perspective.
Perspective about who they are and how they fit in the world. Perspective about what really matters and what could maybe just roll of their backs instead. Perspective about what is worth their emotional energy and what isn’t. Perspective about what’s important and what won’t be remembered a few weeks from now.
I wish I had learned what AJ Jacobs learned, earlier. The good news is, as a parent, I get to pass on not only what I have learned, but what I wish I had learned, to my kids now. And in order to keep the center of the universe mentality as in check as possible, we are going to hone in an attitude of gratitude. Because learning to say “thanks” is a good habit to develop. But also because if gratitude to leads to a greater awareness of things to be grateful for, and a greater sense of empathy and compassion for those who need help we may be able to offer, than I am doing more than raising grateful kids. I’ll be raising emotionally intelligent kids. Relationally healthy kids. Kids who have less of a chance of locking themselves in a hotel room in Alaska while on a family vacation just to make a point about how miserable they are. Kids, who may have a better shot at being better humans than I was at their age.
And those are the kinds of kids I want.