Being with young children and their families is a privilege. One gets to see the earnest care and attention parents devote to raising healthy, happy, polite children. At a time when civility seems an old-fashioned and outdated concept, parents are striving to encourage “please” and “thank you” in their children’s vocabularies. This is an attractive alternative to the harangue of media accusation and name-calling that assaults us daily from all sides. Please and thank you suggest respect and honor for others, qualities in short supply in our times. To fill the world with polite expressions will be a benevolent deed.
Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education, identifies a layer of subtle complexity with inculcating these polite habits in children, however. We are asked to look beyond the common words and seek to know the essence of what stands behind them. When we say please, we are subtly asking, “May you and I engage kindly with one another as I ask you for something? In saying please, I am asking, not demanding.” Thank you says, “I am grateful for what you have just rendered to me,” whether that be a thing, a word, a deed, a smile, an encouragement, or an acknowledgement.
Steiner mentions gratitude or thankfulness again and again in Waldorf educational lectures as being the fundamental virtue out of which all other virtues grow. It is the seed for future feelings of reverence and for love of the world, for all of creation, and for humankind. Gratitude is not something that can be taught explicitly; it must be experienced and absorbed from the environment surrounding the child. It is essential that young children experience gratitude surrounding them—as a mood flowing toward them from the people in their surroundings. When the child hears thank you said sincerely by another, the child’s own statement of thank you will flow out of spontaneous imitation rather than from any exhortation to say the right thing. This imitation will benefit the child for the whole of her life. Steiner describes:
It would be quite wrong to constantly remind the child that it must be thankful for everything that comes from its surroundings. On the contrary, an atmosphere of gratitude should grow naturally, simply through the children’s witnessing the gratitude felt by their elders as they receive what is freely given to them by their fellow human beings, and also in the way they express their gratitude... For out of this there will develop an all-embracing gratitude towards the whole world...
And if we only conduct ourselves rightly in front of the children, a correspondingly graduated feeling of thankfulness will develop in them for all that comes to them from the people living around them, from the way they speak, smile, or deal with them.1
And how do we adults generate and nurture our own experience of gratitude which we can authentically share with the children? This is not easily achieved in our times. Busy, demanding lives ask much of us each day, requiring our earnest focus and concentration. Little time is available for reflection. Rather, it is on to the next! and we may feel a sliver of gratitude as relief at the close of a busy day. This familiar scenario of our lives is important to acknowledge, but it does not offer much to nourish and replenish the soul where, in deep feeling, gratitude longs to reside.
In the face of this, we adults must be crafty to carve out moments to discover where gratitude is waiting to be discovered. At the close of day, perhaps in the moments just before settling into sleep, we can ask ourselves, “What are three things from this day for which I feel grateful?” Gratitude is happy to be felt toward any and all things without judgment that one thing is more important than another.
If we have trouble getting started, looking to the world of nature is a truly wonder-filled place to begin. Many blessings reside there to awaken feelings of thankfulness. The cool shade of a tree gave me shelter from the hot rays of the sun. A little flower peeked up through the grass and I stopped to notice it. The garden has a single ripe strawberry that we will leave for a grandchild to discover. The random seeds we scattered over our arid front garden have sprouted and flowers are budding. The natural world is reaching out to us at all moments to grace us with surprise and encouragement. Further, the poetry of Mary Oliver shares stunning moments of encounter with nature and its creatures that can stir our sense for gratitude.
In the world of our friends, families, colleagues, and random people we might see while walking down the street, what opportunities for gratitude have come to me and what have I extended to others? My child surprised me with an unexpected “I love you.” I surprised an unknown passer-by with a friendly “hello” that evoked a smile. My colleague noticed the extra care I had taken with a project and expressed thanks.
The world outside may rage and roar, criticize, and complain, but to dwell there does not cultivate gratitude. We have the freedom to turn off the media and fold the paper with its woes. In our homes we can cultivate gratitude, the fundamental virtue Steiner identifies as the seed from which all other virtues—loving kindness, fairness, generosity, and acceptance—grow.
Children are the future of this world. We want them to be able to live well and honorably with themselves and with others. Please and thank you, when sincerely filled with feelings of thankfulness, are a step toward that future. Taking time at the day’s end to affirm the small surprises, the wonders, the gifts of small blessings will nourish this seed in our children and fortify us in our adult lives. As we build up our store of gratitude, it can flow to our children and bring blessing to everyone’s lives.