An Assignment Our Kids Don't Need

Just before Thanksgiving my daughter came home with an assignment from school: Things I’m Thankful For. The title caught my eye and I began to read. My anticipation quickly turned to dismay when I got through the first few words, which read, “I’m thankful for myself because. . . .” 


I immediately felt a pit-of-my-stomach disappointment. Questions flew through my mind. Why is my girl focusing on herself when given the opportunity to give thanks? Have I encouraged this? When I compliment her or thank her does she think she’s all that? How do I address this? 


I felt a little awkward as I pulled her aside later that evening. “Honey, I wonder if you would share with me about this assignment.” I pulled out the slip of paper and handed it to her. She looked up at my questioning face. “What did your teacher ask you to do?”


And my girl proceeded to explain that her teacher had instructed the class to write down why they were thankful—for themselves. I felt myself breathe a sigh of relief even as my stomach re-knotted in angst and frustration over what my daughter shared. Their teacher instructed them to title their papers Things I’m Thankful For, and then proceeded to tell the class that we shouldn’t neglect to be thankful for ourselves—for all the things we add to the world, all the things we are good at, all the skills and talents we bring to the table. 


My internal jaw dropped. 


“It made me feel kind of strange,” my sweet girl said, “so I wrote about things that make me a good friend so I could include other people.”


I felt simultaneously proud and wretched. Talk about a rock and a hard place.


I understand that we live in a society that still thinks we need to constantly make people feel good about themselves, feel important, feel capable, regardless of supporting evidence. We worry about self esteem. I understand that even though research and real life indicate capability and confidence don’t come from external platitudes and cheerleading, we still feel a strong compulsion to make our kids feel like their every achievement is a masterpiece. 


But I wasn’t prepared for the gratitude angle—for the idea that my kids ought to be thankful for themselves. To whom, exactly, are they to direct this gratitude? To themselves? To the cosmos? As my kids and I talked about all the appropriate things to be thankful for, including their strong legs, their working lungs, their capacity for compassion and kindness—thank you, God, for Your countless manifestations of grace—I thought of the damage we do when we teach our kids that they are the center. 


That they are the smartest, the cutest, the fastest, the best. That their contribution is the most important, that their efforts are the most impressive, that their results are unmatched. We do them no favors when we teach our kids that the world is so fortunate to have them.


The sad thing is, the world is fortunate to have them. Each person does have a unique and valuable contribution to make, a particular mark unlike any other. To acknowledge this is to acknowledge God’s tremendous blessing, His unrivaled sovereignty, His ways of making masterpiece after masterpiece after masterpiece. We are naturally self-centered. We do not need well-meaning parents or teachers to puff us up like a marshmallow in a microwave. The gospels continuously show Jesus encouraging us to see beyond the noses on our own faces. We do not need to hear how wonderful we are; we do not need to be thankful for ourselves. We need to be thankful for God. For God. For God so loved the world, that we might be given the opportunity to see our own lack in the face of His worth, and be infinitely better for it. 


I am tired of fighting the message to our kids that life is about us, about our own desires, our own talents, our own tastes, our own callings. I am tired of living among those who are afraid to tell a child the truth for fear of hurting feelings, all the while having no qualms about telling the child a lie that will set them up for a lifelong struggle with failure, insecurity, and inadequacy. Let’s do our kids a favor and tell them what to be truly thankful for—that Jesus Christ came down from heaven to forgive us our sins and pave a way for us to be reconciled with God for all eternity. For “once [we] were alienated from God and were enemies in [our] minds because of [our] evil behavior. But now He has reconciled [us] by Christ’s physical body through death to present [us] holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.” (Colossians 1:21-22) That, my friends, is cause to give thanks. Let’s give our gratitude where it is due, and teach our children the same.