On gratitude

The NY Times today has a post in their "Motherlode" blog in which Marc Vachon (of Equally Shared Parenting) argues against thanking one's spouse (particularly husbands) too much, for work they should be doing anyway.

I mention this because Matt and I have been talking recently about theories of praising children (ie, how much, when, what kind, etc.)  The basic idea (in our reading) is that too much praise, especially for things the child should be doing anyway, makes children dependent on external validation, instead of internal. Experts also distinguish between evaluative praise, which confuses the child's identity with their actions, and descriptive praise, which simply describes the action and lets the child define their own identity. (Clear as mud, right?  Evaluative praise: "You're a great artist," descriptive praise: "That's a beautiful picture; I love the colors you chose."  Evaluative: "You're so strong," descriptive:  "That was heavy. Thanks for helping me carry it.") I digress.   

I get Marc Vachon's main argument with the way society gushes over men's contributions to family and household life.  My friend Jeff at Competent Parent has a similar beef, in that people see his fathering (he's the primary caretaker of their two sons) as something either extraordinary or as glorified babysitting, when really, he's just parenting. (If you're in need of a father's day gift, by the way, for the competent parent in your life, check out his t-shirts.) 

But while it makes sense to me that there is such a thing as too much praise, I'm not really sure that there can be too much gratitude. Certainly there's a problem if the gratitude is unequally expressed, and certainly gratitude can be expressed in a demeaning or manipulative way.  But I fail to see the problem with sincere appreciation for another's work, whether expected or not, paid or not, enjoyed or not. I always liked being appreciated by a coworker or boss, and I don't think that took anything away from my own personal satisfaction in doing good work, nor did I need it as a motivator to do said work. It just felt good to have my contribution recognized in a way other than the weekly paycheck. 

In fact, I've come to believe that gratitude is really one of the most important spiritual disciplines, right up there with prayer and keeping the Sabbath.  And I mean not only gratitude to God but also gratitude for all the people in our lives who make our lives what they are.  

So tonight, after I make dinner, just as I have for most nights of our marriage, Matt will most likely thank me.  And knowing that in advance doesn't make me appreciate his appreciation any less. And then, after he washes dishes, which he has done most nights of our marriage, I will thank him. It's not because I find it extraordinary that he's doing the dishes, or that he's such an extraordinary dish-washer. It's that washing dishes, like making dinner, cleaning the toilets or taking the early morning shift with Finn, is part of the work that has to be done everyday to make our lives work. And even though we rarely think in such glorified terms, every day that we choose to keep doing this daily work, we are choosing again our life. For that, I'm thankful.


Gratitude Watch - 2009-05-29 — The Meaning of Existence (and all that) said...

[...] (”Foodsmith”) at Notes from an Escalator gives us “On gratitude,” some commentary on a New York Times blog post “Do You Thank Your Spouse Too Much?” [...]

Christa said...

I really like this posting and I think you're right on. Thanks for the gentle reminder.

Marcy at Life is Good said...

I think there's a BIG difference between praising kids for things they should already be doing (and things you want to build an intrinsic drive to do, rather than make them dependent on the praise-- since they're still building all those systems in their development) and praising adults for things they do even if they are "obligatory."

A 3 yr old who picks up a broom and starts sweeping is doing it for fun. They find it cool. I, as a mother, would want to encourage that feeling of it being "cool" and let THAT be what drives him to pick up the broom rather than sticker/rewards that I come up with.

And adult has already lost that "cool" factor with the broom. To them, it is already a chore. The motivation is completely different, and this what the "thank you" will or may do is completely different.

I agree with the overall notion that he means in that dads get exhaulted for doing the most minor things that mothers are merely expected to do. But, hey, I like getting a thank you for what I know I have no choice in doing anyway. It's nice to be appreciated! I love when my husband turns to me and tells me he thinks I'm doing a great job with our son and thanks me for doing everything I do. It makes me feel appreciated and gives me a boost. So I try to do the same to him. I think a HUGE part of the problems so many couples, and especially parents, face is feeling underappreciated. We take what the other does for granted, and that never feels good even if we know those things are things we need to do anyway. When it comes to adults, especially overworked adults who are likely stressed and sleep-deprived to the max from the toll parenthood can put on you, saying "thank you" is not only not bad, but it can be your saving grace and what helps get you through these tougher times.

So, long rant made short, you're totally right and I very much agree with you.

Julia said...

thank you, monte, for your beautiful post on gratitude. i just wanted to let you know that i very much appreciate your writing--so thoughtful and thought-provoking. i have been quietly enjoying it for the last few months since sonja sent me your blogsite(?), and sending some along to friends. real gratitude is something i've had to work at as "thank you's" were always so highly expected from "good" people. and i have found that truly loving my life, and the people in it--being grateful, being able to acknowlege all the good whenever i am able--has begun to change my life and my relationships. now i usually mean it more deeply when i say thank you. now i start to believe that i deserve the good things in my life. and as my partner, my lover, battles cancer, i feel everything even more strongly (though i thought it not possible). all the anger, the fear, sadness, hope, joy, desire, gratitude... and i realize that being grateful is living in love.

foodsmith said...

Hi Julia--thanks for your thoughtful words, and thanks for reading! Such a nice surprise ... That's a really interesting point you bring up, that although we can force the words "thank you," we can't force gratitude. Certainly it's something to keep in mind as we begin to teach Finn niceties like please and thank you. I'm guessing the best way to teach this (like so many things) is really just to model it.