Gratitude: How to Show the Perfect Amount

Another one of my autistic son’s special talents

Young man holding mug
Image by author. Used with Diego’s permission.

“People are programmed to desire, not to appreciate.” Matt Ridley, in The Rational Optimist

My autistic son Diego sure is great at many things most people never learn how to do well, including saying “no”, apologizing, forgiving, doing favors, and showing gratitude.

Then again, Diego’s wired a tad differently than the average human when it comes to relationships.

Diego’s “faulty” design comes with things like being loud and talking non-stop at times, an inability to have a regular conversation, being rigid about the location of every single thing, and driving me crazy now and then. It also comes with astounding features, however. Being programmed for gratitude is one such feature.

Here are some ways Diego perfectly displays gratitude, which you can adapt to your own life and style:

  1. He describes what he’s thankful for. “Thanks for making brownies with me.”
  2. He randomly thanks you when he talks about something he’s happy about and in which you had some involvement in the past. “I like my bookshelves. Thanks for helping me organize my books.” I helped him organize and label the shelves some months ago. When Diego mentions his books, he usually slips in gratitude for what I did.
  3. Diego remembers who gifted him what and often loves the item just because you gave it to him. He’ll say, for instance, “Tia Margot gave me this mug in 2013.” Or, “I’ll pack the lion shirt Nonna gave me in 2016.”
  4. Diego’s gratitude is wholly unrelated to the monetary value of a gift. He knows things cost money for sure, but he’ll never get “supply and demand,” or why anyone would value a Baccarat pear sculpture over a Batman figurine.
  5. Diego’s gratitude comes with no strings attached. You know he doesn’t know or think to correspond with an equivalent item or action. It works the other way around too. Diego doesn’t expect the return of a favor or gift. He delights in serving and giving.

Here’s a prime example of Diego’s innate gratefulness.

When Diego and his brother Andres were teenagers (15 and 13 years old I reckon), my husband came back from a trip to Italy bringing a pair of pants for each of us as a gift.

The pants came from the equivalent of a J. Crew chain, and the look was different from what we were used to. We immediately tried them. Andres and I didn’t really like how our pair fit, which we conveyed in a manner that was not quite right.

I mean, I dont remember us being rude, just skipping the part about appreciating the gesture and saying something along the lines of “Hmm, I don’t like how these look on me.” My husband (his name’s Cesar) was exceedingly hurt at my total lack of gratitude.

He didn’t really expect Diego and Andres to know better. But me? He couldn’t get over how I’d so tactlessly rejected a gift he’d brought all the way back from Milan, the fashion capital of the world no less.

Yeah, I was bad that day. A bad partner, bad role model, bad human.

The ironic part is that Andres and I both ended up loving the pants, so much so that, once he couldn’t wear them as pants anymore because his legs had gotten so long, Andres turned them into cutoff shorts.

By contrast, Diego, who’s also cognitively challenged, liked the pants from the moment he got them. He doesn’t get fit and look when it comes to clothes really, but he totally sensed what’s important:

  • His dad adores him, and he loves his dad.
  • His dad was excited to have gotten him a cool pair of pants.
  • His dad had been thinking about him while he was away on his business trip.

After watching our little drama unfold and conclude, Diego stated, sweetly and disarmingly “Dad, I do like the pants. Thank you.” Diego knew to be grateful for his dad’s love, not for a freaking pair of pants.

I’m not saying I had to tell Cesar that I loved the pants and had never seen such a perfectly-tailored pair in my life. But I could’ve shown gratitude, even profuse gratitude for his thoughtfulness to compensate for the fact that I didn’t like the gift itself.

“People are programmed to desire, not to appreciate,” notes journalist and businessman Matt Ridley in The Rational Optimist, his best-selling book about human progress and the factors behind it.

Diego’s an exception to this human tendency. He desires and appreciates equally. We’d all be way more fulfilled if, like Diego, we were equally programmed for both.

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Parenting and Social Media: Parents, Your Job Will Get a Lot Harder Than It Already Is

Potential future parents must know what they’re getting into

Little girl with long brown hair
Image by talib abdulla from Pixabay

I’m a preschool teacher and mother to two sons, ages 26 and 24. I’ve experienced and seen changes in parenting up close in the communities I inhabit.

For the sake of context, I shall describe such communities as (a) middle-class to ultra-rich Northeast United States, and (b) middle- to upper-middle-class Hispanic immigrant families.

I’ve seen some positive trends for sure. But I’m here to highlight the alarming trends with no end in sight that are making and will continue to make parenting so much harder. If nothing’s done about them, they will eclipse and cancel out the positive.

I’m talking about social media/screens and environmental degradation/ climate change. Here’s what to look out for and a few things we must all do to help, whether or not we’re parents.

Screens and social media: How they get in the way of parenting and will continue to make the job harder.

Nothing replaces the human connection. Nothing replaces the role of play in childhood. Good parenting requires that we provide both, and doing so is getting harder.

I’m 51. I got my first cell phone at 26 when all cell phones could do was make a call. My sons were in high school when social media and smartphones began to become a part of life.

I didn’t have to compete with the addictive power of various screens to get my children to build with real blocks or play outside with the good old sphere you can bounce, hit, throw or roll and that lends itself to so many games and sports with other humans.

An even more sinister effect of screens on parenting is how they suck us parents in. We give our kids access to them at the restaurant, in the car, in the doctor’s waiting room, at home, even when they have a little friend over.

It’s just so freaking easy and incredibly tempting to let them be on a device hours and hours every day when we have so much to do and the device guarantees us peace and quiet.

It’s also the case that when we intend to spend quality time with our children, we just can’t seem to help clicking on that YouTube video, looking at our Facebook, posting that picture we just took to Instagram and responding to texts.

And it gets worse as children get older and social media enters their lives. Parenting a teenager has always been difficult partly because outside influences, both wonderful and terrible, begin to play a bigger role in our children’s lives at a time when they are also becoming more independent and hormonal changes are playing with their minds and bodies.

Current and future parents: Sorry, but you now have the huge responsibility of monitoring where your children are and who they’re with not only in the physical world but also in the vast, ever-expanding virtual one.

The evidence is mounting on the negative effects of social media on youth mental health. According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal:

“Evidence from a variety of cross-sectional, longitudinal and empirical studies implicate smartphone and social media use in the increase in mental distress, self-injurious behaviour and suicidality among youth; there is a dose–response relationship, and the effects appear to be greatest among girls.” (Smartphones, social media use and youth mental health, February, 2020)

How society can help:

  • Support sensible regulation of social media. We can’t leave it to the tech giants to regulate themselves. It hasn’t worked. Regulation needs to cover, for example, access restrictions, some signaling of fact vs opinion, heavy fines for not removing content not protected as “free speech”, and preventing algorithms from nudging users toward ever more divisive and extreme content.
  • Schools must play an important role in teaching children to recognize and tackle the addictive power of social media, how to detect misinformation and propaganda, and how to be informed participants in the virtual world.

Climate change and environmental decline: How these trends will change parenting.

Wherever we live, the negative impact of environmental decline and climate change will just continue to grow. Family displacement will become more common; environmental degradation will lead to conflict as basic resources like water become scarce; and severe weather events that disrupt life will happen more frequently.

Parenting will be made harder both by the effects of climate change and by the changes families will need to make to adapt to and combat it. It’s already happening, so we must take action to limit the damage.

As the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) indicates:

“Continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, including the likelihood of severe, pervasive and irreversible impact for people and ecosystems. Limiting climate change will require substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gas emissions which, together with adaptation, can limit climate change risks.”

Current and future parents: Because we are currently doing too little to combat climate change, you will have an even greater need to change your ways in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. You will need to do this as you figure out how to parent.

You will have the essential responsibility to teach your children that protecting the environment is just as important as making money so they can have a big house and buy lots of stuff.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be teaching this to the children of today, just that the urgency increases every day.

When I was growing up, concern for the environment didn’t figure in the worries of parenting. The wilderness and seasons were taken for granted and the sustainability of our lifestyle was not put into question.

This is not the case anymore. With every passing day, our actions place the wellbeing of all living beings — including us humans — at greater risk.

How society can help:

  • We need to take action today, at the individual, local, national, and international levels. This is easy to say and write, but impossible to achieve if we don’t care, don’t know enough, and don’t change our mindset.

Final Thoughts

Parents of today and parents of the future: I don’t want to leave you with the impression that there are no promising changes underway. I’ve witnessed trends in parenting in my lifetime that I certainly consider positive.

When it comes to diverse family composition, things have changed for the better. For example, no teacher bats an eye anymore if a student’s family’s blended, inter-racial, or includes two moms.

I also see more equitable sharing of parental responsibilities; for instance, more fathers doing the picking up and dropping off, filling out of school forms, replying to teacher emails, and making sure their children get on their devices for remote learning.

I’ve also noticed a third positive change lately that’s directly related to the pandemic. More children are outdoors doing things that were just part of being a kid not so long ago. Yeah, I’m talking about good old activities like outdoor play, riding a bike, and going fishing.

Although this change can’t be called a trend given how recent it is, I sure hope it will become one and not end with the pandemic. The change involves no electronics and exposes children to the outdoors and the natural world a bit.

Parenting and the future are interdependent. Both will require a change of mindset in terms of our hopes and dreams for our children.

Parents have traditionally hoped that their children’s lives will be equal to or better than theirs, but this hope has exclusively focused on economic outcome.

We need a shift to a mindset where one of our greatest hopes is that our children inherit a planet as rich (or richer) in resources and human connections as the one we had.

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