When my daughter Annie was five, she was hospitalized with a rare autoimmune disease. She was pretty sick, but they were able to diagnose her quickly, and we knew she’d get better with medication. Sadly, her teenage roommate wasn’t so lucky—her prognosis was dire and she was unlikely to leave the hospital ever again.

Over the years, we’ve worked to keep Annie as healthy as possible, but it hasn’t always been easy, partially because she was eventually diagnosed with two more autoimmune diseases. There are times when she’s doing great, but also times when she’s weak, tired, depressed, and anxious. There have been weeks when she’s missed more school than she’s attended, and weekends when she couldn’t even sleep over at a friend’s house because the fallout from losing sleep is just too hard on her system.

Not surprisingly, the bad times have led to the occasional bouts of self pity, when she’s threatened to just give up on trying to get anything done and take to her bed for the rest of her life.

“Oh, please,” I’ve said at these times. “You don’t have it that bad. Remember your hospital roommate? You should be grateful that you’re as healthy as you are.”

I’m not sure why I say things like that. It just leads to her accusing me of being unsympathetic (“Unloving Mother” gets added to her list of complaints), and that in turn leads me to wonder how I could have raised a kid who’s so selfish that she can’t even acknowledge how good her life is compared to most of the people in the world.

It wasn’t until I hit a really tough period in my own emotional life that I realized what I should have known all along–gratitude can’t be forced. Either it springs naturally from your heart or it doesn’t, and no amount of being told you should be grateful will make you feel grateful. That’s just not how we’re wired.

It wasn’t until I hit a really tough period in my own emotional life that I realized what I should have known all along–gratitude can’t be forced.

Say you’re feeling depressed about something, like a bad bit of career news or your third cold in a month or a broken-down car, and someone says to you, “Yeah, but your life is actually pretty good. Get some perspective and be grateful for all you’ve got.” Don’t you kind of want to murder that person? Hasn’t he made you feel worse—because now not only are you frustrated and depressed, but you’re also apparently a selfish ingrate?

You just can’t guilt people into feeling grateful.

Fortunately, there are moments when gratitude comes naturally and spontaneously. Sometimes I’ll just be walking down the street, thinking about what I’m going to be doing the rest of the day, looking forward to seeing my husband and kids, maybe planning a meal or something . . . and I suddenly feel very lucky in my life and very grateful for all I’ve got.  It feels so good—so right and affirming–that I want to bottle it up and keep it for later, when I know I’ll need it, because I’ll be tired or disappointed or frustrated or whatever.

But gratitude doesn’t work that way. It comes and goes on its own schedule.

So how do we teach our kids to be grateful?

I honestly think there’s only one way: by modeling it ourselves, during those moments when we’re sincerely feeling it. Don’t tell your kids that they should be grateful–tell them how grateful you are, to be their parent, to live in the house you live in, to be doing whatever it is you’re doing at that moment that’s making you feel content and appreciative.

In other words, live gratitude. Don’t dictate it.

And you might find that by marking those happy moments, you’re making yourself more aware of them. Which is truly something to be grateful for.

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