A few weeks ago, I was driving my nephews and niece around to some of their various activities. Having them in a contained and controlled environment is always fun because they are literally a captive audience for me, and I for them. They ask questions and jump from topic to topic at dizzying speeds, and it forces me to either tune in or tune out. I try to always choose the former since it's rare to spend time with them without other adults or children around to pull focus or change the tenor of the conversation.
We were discussing their upcoming trip to Costa Rica in a week's time. "Discussing" is a generous term. Rather, they were throwing thoughts and concerns about the upcoming trip at me like grenades, one over the other, and I was catching, tossing back or ducking completely and trying to keep up. It was clear that they were excited and nervous and apprehensive about the food and the culture and the monkeys... completely normal reactions for anyone, but especially adorable when voiced by a 6, 8 and 10 year old.
Then, the conversation narrowed in on one topic: the trip there, specifically how annoying it would be to endure all that travel.
This stopped me in my tracks. Hold on, I thought, you are going to Costa Rica. On an airplane. Two airplanes, actually. Carrying your own suitcase. Using your passport for the first time in your life. Getting up at 4am to make it to the airport on time. Passing through metal detectors and drug-sniffing dogs. Participating in a part of the adult world that you have never before experienced. And you're annoyed???
Let me be clear, I will not ever be the person who complains about "kids these days." It may be true that my grandparents had to walk uphill both ways, that my parents had to run a paper route and didn't have TV, that I roamed the neighborhood like a homeless child until the street lights came on; but it's also true that "kids these days" have plenty of their own monsters and hardships. Each generation has its challenges and if we really want to help (instead of judge) the current one, we can start by not pointing out the differences in our historical childhoods - it only breeds anxiety and self-consciousness, followed by defensive reaction and intentional distance. When the kids talked about their annoyance, I was not inwardly rolling my eyes at their lack of gratitude for the amazing opportunity ahead of them. (Cue: step off soapbox.)
Instead, I felt a deep sadness for them. And not a trivial amount of guilt.
The trip to Costa Rica, as described by the kids, was exactly as nerve racking and "annoying" as any adult would describe it. Early flight with 3 kids - No thank you! Keeping up with everyone's luggage through security - Count me out! A layover to boot - Kill me now!
Of course they were expressing annoyance! It was a perfect mirror of every adult's assessment thusfar, right on down to the dramatic sighs and sarcastic statements. Those little sponges we call kids, they want approval and recognition, and the fastest way to garner such things is through simple reflection. As the Witch (representing all adults) in Steven Sondheim's iconic musical Into the Woods (the woods being the great big scary real world) says: "Careful the things you say, children will listen...Children may not obey, but children will listen... Children will look to you for which way to turn, to learn what to be."
I found myself wondering how they would have spoken about the upcoming travel if their heads were free from adult voices. Perhaps they actually would have been annoyed after all, wanting to get to the beach and the monkeys as soon as possible. They might have been scared out of their little minds over the giant metal bird they had to ride. They could have been so apprehensive over the early trip to the airport that they couldn't sleep.
And maybe, they would be delighted by the prospect of drinking a "free" drink on the plane. Maybe they would marvel at the sheer number of strangers they would encounter on their journey, each one a different size and shape and color and temperament. Maybe they would watch the conveyer belt and the metal detecting wands and the TSA workers with their Xray vision, and think that surely Dumbledore was around the next corner.
I have no idea how they would have reacted because they weren't given the chance to approach the situation with an untainted mind. Then again, when are any of us? We are told - from childhood - what to believe, how to behave, who to love, when to react... and we carry out these "orders" without pausing to ask 'why?'.
Consider another choice, an alternate reality if you will... consider a world in which you DO pause. And ask. And notice the answers.
This act, called Curiosity - asking questions, seeking answers, merely as a thought experiment, free from judgment - is not something that is heavily prized in our society. Curiosity challenges the status quo, calling into question everything we take for granted "as is." One of my least favorite sayings is "it is what it is." While we are there, let's add another icky phrase to the list: "because I say so."
In the world of parenting, there is most definitely a time and a place for these phrases - usually when a child's safety or well-being is being threatened. But even as a parent, how often have I used one of these with my own kids, merely to get them to do what I say, leave me alone, stop asking me questions, why can't you just play in your room or color like all of the other kids... you get the idea....
The death of - or discomfort with - curiosity is one of the saddest choices we have made as humans. Without it, we will not, we cannot, feel Gratitude. Think about it... if you weren't curious as to why your mother stayed home from work to take care of you when you were sick (after all, it didn't make financial sense and you were old enough to take care of yourself and you would only sleep on the couch anyway), would you feel the warmth of gratitude that washed over you when she brought you soup? If you didn't pause to wonder at how many flight hours the pilots on major airlines have to spend in preparation for your tiny little puddle jump from Newark to Washington, would you feel amazement and appreciation when your flight seemed so effortless? If you hadn't planted a seed and watered it and put it into the window and waited day by day to see how it would change, would you thoroughly enjoy the burst of sweetness in the first bite of that strawberry?
As a parent, I struggle with the question of how to cultivate Gratitude in my children. But in truth,
we are literally surrounded by opportunities to be thankful. As long as we allow and embrace Curiosity.
So the next time your child asks you "why?" for the ga-billionth time, pause. Reframe your perspective, shift annoyance to appreciation. Allow yourself to be curious as well, and feel the gratitude of that ability.
And just maybe, when the time comes, both of you will spend that layover - together - noticing things anew, allowing each moment to contain wonder, and deeply thankful for the whole experience.