In the season of giving thanks, I often think of a family I will call the Renfields. Their first child, Ray, was diagnosed early in life with moderate autism spectrum. Some parents are overwhelmed by such a finding, but the Renfields stayed positive. “This is a child with real strengths,” the dad told me. “We’re so lucky to have the means to get the help he needs.”
Academically, Ray was really bright. He had trouble with motor skills, so his dad began taking him for walks. As Ray got older, they went on weekend hikes. Ray learned the geography and natural history of different trails. He formed friendships—another victory for him—with hiking partners. He learned to love the natural world. Hiking and camping became things he did really well.
As a small child, Ray had been unaware of his issues; then he was confused by them; and then he realized his differences and felt a lot of pain. But he modeled his attitude on his parents’. “Some people need glasses, I need help learning how to read faces,” he told me. And then he added, “Even though I don’t read all the social cues you give me, the ones I do get, that show your approval, matter to me.”
Ray has developed far beyond his parents’ early hopes. He’s been through college and grad school. He has friends. During college vacations he hiked the Appalachian Trail. He volunteers at the Boys and Girls Club. In their enjoyment and acceptance of him, Ray’s parents gave him a model of enjoying and accepting what comes to him. Despite hardships, Ray is grateful.
Gratitude isn’t about thinking everything is perfect. It’s about having the feeling: “I’m so happy to have what I have.” It puts life in a positive perspective. As parents you can do two things to help your children grow up to be grateful for their talents, their relationships, and the good things that surround them.
One is to show your own gratitude. Remind yourself and your kids when things are a pleasure. Say something positive when things work out well or when people try to make your day better. The other is to teach your children to think about others. When they’re little help them realize that other people have their own thoughts, beliefs, values, and intentions. Sharing and being thankful go hand in hand, and it is easier to share when you realize that other people are as fully human as you are. Supporting your children’s awareness of others will make them appreciate and want to share the good things in life that they have.