And what would you . . . ?
What would you do if a child from a privileged home couldn’t tell you what they were thankful for?
Not a single thing?
Yesterday on facebook, while browsing my news feed, I came across this photo and quote from Humans of New York. Humans of New York is a popular photoblog created by a man named Brandon Stanton. The site features portraits and interviews of individuals in New York — and around the world. While some have criticized HONY, saying many of Stanton’s interviews must be staged, most viewers love the site. I myself like HONY because, to me, Brandon has done exactly what I’ve been trying to do all along: Show that people are people.
“I’m trying to raise my daughter with the same values that I learned in Jamaica, but it can be hard to instill gratitude and appreciation when we are surrounded by such abundance. When I was growing up in Jamaica, every time I wanted something, my grandmother made me go through the same list of questions: ‘Why do you want it?’ ‘How much will it cost?’ ‘Is it going to make your life better?’ There wasn’t enough money for things we didn’t need, so we were always forced to ask those questions — even for simple things like a new pair of shoes. The necessity of that ritual really helped create a deep appreciation for the things we had.”
“It can be hard to instill gratitude and appreciation when we are surrounded by such abundance.”
This quote struck me in particular because of a conversation I had with some of my students this past week. I had asked my kids (most of whom come from affluent white, Indian, and Asian homes in the Silicon Valley), now that Halloween was over, what holiday came next? The answer, of course, was “Thanksgiving,” but I was disappointed to discover that very few kids understood what that really meant.
“So what is Thanksgiving about?” I asked.
“Food!” said some.
“Turkey!” said others.
“Time off from school!” cried many.
One student, trying to dig deeper, said, “It’s about the Pilgrims and the Indians. They were coming up against a hard winter, and . . . Er, I don’t really remember the story. I just know it had to do with the Pilgrims.”
NO ONE said anything about thankfulness.
My disappointment was amplified, however, when I asked the students to think of ten things they were thankful for — and why.
“Umm . . .” Most had to pause before answering. Prompting didn’t help. And then, finally:
“My new iPhone 6.”
“My new car.”
Very few said anything about anything other than their material possessions. When I asked them about how they thought their lived compared to the lives of kids in other countries — say, Africa — their responses were unenthusiastic at best.
“What about your bed at night? Do you sleep in a nice, soft bed?”
“Do you think kids in Africa all sleep in nice soft beds?
“I guess not.”
“What about electricity? Do all kids in Africa have electricity?”
“Uhh . . . No?”
“That’s right, they don’t. Can you imagine what your life would your life be like if you didn’t have electricity?”
“That’d be awful!” with no real emotional connection. (Life without electricity? Was there even such a thing?)
And so on, and so forth.
And my heart hurt when the day was done. And I wondered what my students would think if they saw this * **interview with this little boy in India? And I wondered what we as a nation are teaching our children?
*Thank you, Allwin, for sharing!!
**See insightful comments from Francis and Bhuwanchand below about guilt, giving, and charity starting at home.