Many years ago in residency, I had the pleasure to meet an early-adolescent boy whose spirit has stayed with me to this day. He was sick and facing a long treatment plan for a tumor that did not threaten his life but changed his appearance and needed removal. His family was poor and moved frequently for work, so he had not seen a doctor in many years.
He or a family member had cut the toe-ends of both of his shoes so that he could continue to wear them, despite their being at least two sizes too small. His toes stuck out an inch from the ends of the tennis shoes that were now sandals.
He was such a kind boy and never complained. He approached his treatment plan with maturity, grateful for every person who showed up to help him. In his needs assessment, I remember asking him if he needed new shoes. “It’s OK,” he replied. “This is my little sister’s year to get a new pair of shoes. I’ll get some new ones next year.”
As I was reviewing his needs with my team the next morning, I broke down in tears. It wasn’t his tumor that affected me. The surgical plan was in place for that. What got to me was imagining my closet full of shoes juxtaposed with this boy’s face saying “It’s OK. I’ll get some new ones next year.”
Seeing my distress, my supervising doctor promised that she would stop by a store on her way home from work and buy him some new shoes.
I don’t really remember the boy’s reaction to getting new shoes. But I remember the image of the boy’s feet in his old shoes and his gracious, content spirit. And I remember the kindness of my supervising doctor, who is still an amazing physician today.
Fortunately, my kids have never had to wear shoes that were two sizes too small. They have had all the clothes they need. They have food on the table three times a day (and more when they want it). They have family support and vacations to build memories.
Many of us are fortunate to be able to give our children advantages. But how can we make sure they appreciate this good fortune? It is important to me that I help my children realize that they are not entitled to new shoes each year.
I want them to understand that there are children whose only meal a day is the cafeteria lunch at school, and that these children have no less value than kids with a kitchen full of healthy food. Trying to figure out education and virtual learning this year, we have discussed how fortunate they are to have WiFi in their home and a computer on which they can learn.
I need to help my kids practice gratitude, so they will not take their “advantages” for granted. There are studies looking at the neuroscience of gratitude, how it can change your brain chemistry in positive ways. And I believe that gratitude can and should be modeled and taught to our children.
It matters how we talk about people around our children. They are listening. What do we value, and how does that influence how our children see the world? There was a time one of my kids complained about having a one-story house, so my husband brought home photos of people sleeping in a downtown Houston parking lot on a freezing night. He told them he’d better never hear them complain about having a one-story house again. And they haven’t.
I hope I will raise children who will have inner contentment, like the boy from years ago, not happiness that is built on what they have or want. One of the most important things I can teach them is that titles, money and material things don’t guarantee happiness.
Gratitude for what we have leads to inner contentment, and inner contentment stays even when the world around you seems to be falling apart. Family, friends, love and loyalty. Kindness. Hard work. This is what I want my kids to prioritize.
One exercise you can try with your kids is to keep a gratitude journal, or even a gratitude white board on your wall or refrigerator. On even the most rotten days, we can find something to be grateful for, even if it’s just that we mustered the energy to get out of bed that day or have breath to live another day. Be grateful your legs hold you up. Be grateful your eyes can see.
Being grateful when you have little keeps your spirit content. Being grateful when you have a surplus is sometimes harder but, perhaps, even more important.
I am grateful for the people in my life who have taught me important life lessons through the years. I’m especially grateful for the boy with a tumor whose shoes were too small, because he continues to reinforce in me values of happiness and gratitude.
Our kids have so many role models. They admire people who exhibit hard work, success, athletic prowess, intelligence, musical ability. But right up there with all of these role models, for gratitude and contentment, I want my children to be like the boy with the toes cut out of his shoes.