ungrateful and unaware

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.

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“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 Wii.”

“My computer.”

“D.S.”

“Minecraft.”

“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?”

“Yes!”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“Really?”

“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.

20 thoughts

  1. Can you share that video with your students? I don’t know what grade you teach, but I’m not surprised by their answers. The current generation of schoolchildren in many areas of our country grow up with so much handed to them they have no concept of what it’s like not to have, to struggle for the little things, to have to sacrifice. It’s a shame. I wonder what will happen if and when things get really tough in this country at some point in the future.

    • I think I may next week. I actually teach at an after-school learning center and work with a wide range of ages — from four to fourteen. Most of these students were elementary kids, and I just couldn’t believe… It seems that some of them, who come from privileged Indian backgrounds (for example), and take yearly trips to India to see family there… Shouldn’t they? Couldn’t they? How could they not see some of the privileges they had when compared to their fellow countrymen? I was disappointed that they weren’t digging deeper, thinking further…

      And that’s where I think society itself, too, plays a role. No one talks about the gift of being able to work. The only thing we focus on is the *result* of work — a paycheck, or “bling bling.” We think that things, gadgets, toys will bring us happiness. And we’re surprised when they leave us anything but.

      Thank you for reading and commenting!

      • I wish there was a way to educate kids that life is fragile and none of this “stuff” is automatic. They, and I include my own two kids in this, have no appreciation for what they have.

  2. My classmates at school were from very poor families, actually we all were at least a bit poor, but I learnt something: When you are a child you are happy with what you have, it doesn’t matter if parents can afford an iPad or barely three simple marbles, that doesn’t mean that you are unable to be happy.
    Be ungrateful is something from lack of education in home, it hasn’t anything to do with how much money you have. When I studied with poorer classmates they could be harsh because I were “rich”, and when I studied with richer classmate they could be harsh because I were “poor”. Usually that nonsense was originated by the teachers.
    Even more I thing that inadvertently you are trying to build a positive value (gratefulness) with a negative value (guilty by comparing them to poor children (usually the side effect is that they’re going to think that be poor is a value and they cannot compete), I think that you should teach them just to be grateful, when kids we are happy when we have.
    Regards from somebody that when child lived with just a few hours of electricity and water.

    • I agree with you wholeheartedly. Poverty is not a virtue and it should never be presented like that. It is also not a disease which can be treated with a few pieces of gold or silver. You are absolutely right it is a relative things. All kids are poorer than one set of kids and richer than another set – a society without rich or poor people is the a kind of utopia – offered by theoretical concept like Communism but not possible in the practical world.

      Our kids will not learn from watching this or any other video or from what we TELL them to learn and do, rather they will learn by observing how we live our life. If we feel the kids of today are not understanding the virtues of Thanksgiving then we need to assess whether we are displaying thankfulness as a virtue ourselves, in front of them. Not empty words but our deeds teach the kids a lot.

      Obviously, it is a staged video – one can hear the leading questions, knowing fully well the answers to be expected out of the innocent kid. But that’s irrelevant, the kid also know the purpose of this kind of interview, he is doing it in the hope of getting some money. While interacting with foreigners they have expectations of more money, they how to push the button and induce guilt among the people who have lived in a different world. In fact within India also you will find kids/ others begging far away from their own hometowns, not because everyone is poor in their hometown, but because it is easier for us to offer a small sum of money to a strangers and feel better about ourselves. We are not giving money to them to make them feel better, we are actually trying make ourselves feel better.

      Someone had said so rightly, charity must begin at home. If all of pledge to help people around us, within our family/ extended family/ neighborhood, city, state, country, we will be able to do so much more. But its tough, because we wont be able to drop some coins and cut them out of our consciousness – we will meet these people every day and will have to do much more than offering just some change to make a demonstrable difference in their life.

      I may sound a bit harsh, but taking the full responsibility for the painful conditions that a large part of population suffers here in India, I would like to tell the people feeling sorry for this Indian Kid in Dharmshala that it is my job to take care of him and others like him. I may failing in fulfilling my responsibility but does that give you you the license to carry on with the perverse Poverty Tourism to clean up your own consciousness by offering them some money and glorifying their poverty. If you are truly compassionate then please feel the pain of the underprivileged people, mostly non-whites in the united states.

      One may find it highly virtuous to be a liberal, kindhearted person, shedding a tear for dis-advantaged people, writing powerful words defending the poor, dropping some coins and sure enough that is sufficient to clean up their consciousness and they can carry on with their own life without any burden on their soul. A lot of people in India also indulge in the same, many of them are feted by the global media, they form their cosy little groups/ NGO’s, playing on the guilt of rich western citizens and government, collect a lot of funds – not only live a comfortably amazing life themselves, secure a great future for their own kids, but also known as saints around the world, win global awards.

      I’d say there is no point in either glorifying poverty or indulging in guilt-inducement – teach your kids good virtues, love, honesty, integrity, truthfulness, friendship and comradeship, integrate them with the society, help in making them responsible citizens,

      Begging, specially through children is more than a social evil here in India, it is a criminal activity managed by adult gang members who kidnap the children and/or get the kids from poor/ irresponsible parents in lieu of money and push them into this organized criminal activity – begging is just a front of this, they also slowly push these kids into other crimes (including robberies, drug peddling, murders, etc.) The Indian law (like laws in most parts of the world) are lenient towards the crime conducted by juveniles (minor kids, lesser than 18 years of age), they are not put into jail or given harsher punishments, they just spend some time in Juvenile homes which are again managed very poorly and kids easily manage to run away from these facilities and get back on their jobs. By the time these kids reach near adulthood, many of them become hard-core criminals.

      I will tell you something which will highlight the hypocrisy of a lot of people – Around two years back (in the December of 2012) a heinous crime was committed in the middle of India’s capital New Delhi. A girl was brutally raped, her body mutilated with iron rod and after the murder, thrown out of a running bus. The world media painted India/ New Delhi as the rape capital of the world. As the time went by and the news became less sensational, media lost the incentive to focus on it. The culprits were caught, the main culprit claimed & managed to prove in the courts that he is six month short of adulthood. If these people had interviewed him 10 years back, he’d also be just like the kid in this video, Neglect from the family and society, a life on the street turned him into a hard-core criminal. But should that be a consideration now or in the future when he carries out heinous crimes against humanity. And I was shocked to read this nicely worded piece about that ghastly criminal in Washington Post few months back http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/juvenile-rapist-in-2012-new-delhi-assault-now-paints-and-cooks-at-correction-home/2014/08/31/1af8a383-1100-4305-b59b-8259784debf0_story.html . It just proved what I feared here I agree with you wholeheartedly. Poverty is not a virtue and it should never be presented like that. It is also not a disease which can be treated with a few pieces of gold or silver. You are absolutely right it is a relative things. All kids are poorer than one set of kids and richer than another set – a society without rich or poor people is the a kind of utopia – offered by theoretical concept like Communism but not possible in the practical world.

      Our kids will not learn from watching this or any other video or from what we TELL them to learn and do, rather they will learn by observing how we live our life. If we feel the kids of today are not understanding the virtues of Thanksgiving then we need to assess whether we are displaying thankfulness as a virtue ourselves, in front of them. Not empty words but our deeds teach the kids a lot.

      Someone had said so rightly, charity must begin at home. If all of pledge to help people around us, within our family/ extended family/ neighborhood, city, state, country, we will be able to do so much more. But its tough, because we wont be able to drop some coins and cut them out of our consciousness – we will meet these people every day and will have to do much more than offering just some change to make a demonstrable difference in their life.

      I know it is heart wrenching to see the poor/ homeless people out in the open in the cold winter nights in Delhi. When I became a parent it was specially unbearable to see the kids of same age as my own, roaming around on the street without any clothes while coming back late in the night from office. My wife packed a bagful of warm clothes and we distributed it to the group. The very next night I saw them again at the same spot without the clothes, got to know they work for a gang and their earnings gets impacted negatively if they appear to be well clothed/ well fed. They asked me to give them some money instead of clothes or food, which would be easier to hide from their gang leader.

      We are promoting begging by giving away money like this, there are better ways to do charity, trust me, it may not give an instant fix to our guilty conscience…

      • Wow, thank you so much for your comment — you and Francis both. My response will likely be very inadequate, but I will try.

        I certainly did not expect or intend to make it appear that I was trying to make my students feel guilty for their own lives or sorry for the lives of other kids. I actually found this video on facebook — one of my blogging friends from India posted it. It is true that the video was staged, and true that begging is a criminal activity there in India. I didn’t mean to glorify it or suggest that giving poor people money is something we should do to ease our guilty consciences. There are certainly a lot of street dwellers here in Berkeley, and I don’t give them money, either.

        Rather, my intent with my questions to my students was to get them to think outside of their own personal spheres. When I was growing up, I was taught that it was important to try to walk in other people’s shoes. As such, I was trying to get my students to think about what it might be like if they lived somewhere else and didn’t have i.e. a soft bed and loving parents to tuck them in. These are things these kids take for granted — to the point that the only things they can think of to be grateful for is fancy toy or electronic gadget. And that’s sad. Like Francis said, kids can be happy with anything, but these kids are being programmed to think that happiness is the equivalent of material objects, and that kind of thinking only leads to selfishness and destruction in the end. Happiness comes from being outward-focused — yes, by learning to be charitable to others in our homes — not by focusing on ourselves.

        So, no, I am not promoting giving money to street kids like this one in India with this post. Perhaps I shouldn’t have posted that video, because it seems to have taken people’s thoughts in a direction I hadn’t intended them to go. All I really wanted to do was to try to get these kids to think outside of their own personal spheres, which is something no one else (apparently) has ever challenged them to do.

    • Thank you so much for your comment, Francis. I always appreciate your thoughts! My aim when asking these students to think about the lives of children in Africa was not to make them feel guilty. Rather, it was just to get them to try to imagine a life outside of their own and what that might be like. I suppose that that is a trait we learn to do more and more as we get older, but there is no reason these kids can’t start to try and “walk in someone else’s shoes now”!

      You are also right that kids can be happy with whatever they have, but the responses these kids were giving me indicated that they were used to material things — in particular, computer games and electronics — to stay occupied. When I asked them why they were thankful for their Wiis, for example, they told me: “It’s fun, and it keeps me from getting bored.” I fear we are raising a generation of kids who lack imagination and seek stimulation from computer screens rather than being creative and using their own minds. And that’s sad!

      I admire you for your childhood. Living in Taiwan, where life was far from convenient in many ways, left me with a profound gratefulness for many of the conveniences I have here in the States.

      I hope you are having a wonderful day!!

  3. That is very sad to hear. I hope the students learn to be greatful for the little things in life that they have. They are young, they don’t know everything in the world…and it sadly seems they don’t know too much about other kids in the world. It’s so good to see that you’re trying to get them to look at others and not just themselves, and I hope you get to share what you’ve learnt over the last few years, having traveled and all :)

    Hope you’ve been well, and have a good week :)

    • Thank you, Mabel! You are such a sweetheart. Yes, I was sad to see how little these kids knew about or seemed to care about the world outside of them. True, they are young, and our worlds are smaller when we’re young, but still… I hope I am able to make an impact, but I am actually moving and hopefully changing jobs soon. More on that to come…

      Life has been crazy, but I still do hope to bring my blog back! Hope you are having a good week, too!

      • “our worlds are smaller when we’re young,” Maybe, when we are oblivious to the “grown-up” things in life and what’s happening around the rest of the world. but when we’re young, I feel that our words are bigger – we dare to dream, nothing seems impossible to us, and the little, simple things make us happy. Like eating an ice-cream. Or playing with our friends.

        That is good you’re on a roll with jobs. Best of luck with it. I’m cheering you on from my corner of the world :)

    • Thank you, Allwin. Unfortunately, I only see them once a week, as I work at an after school learning center. You would be interested to know, though, that there are many, MANY Indian families living in San Ramon. One of my blogging friends from India (another one) used to live in San Ramon, actually. Apparently it’s a hub for international businesses that have offices both here and there. Anyway…

      And I’m moving! So I will have to quit my job. I will miss some of these kids a lot.

      But, thank you. I hope I will have made an impact when I leave. Hope you are having a great night/day!

  4. There are a couple posts I just read dealing about the topic about having (money specifically), and through these posts were the feeling that we really do not need much to survive and be happy.

    I suppose that materialistic thoughts exist every where, with the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ mindset unavoidable in every culture to some extent, and in developed countries it can seem that materialistic thought is rampant. But I think children also empathize very well, and good teaching (like with you) and parents are important for children to understand real value and happiness.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Randy. Yes, I truly believe that a child’s character, thoughts, and mindset start at home and are largely influenced by our parents. At my current job (I’m quitting soon), I only see my students once a week and thus have minimal opportunity for impact. However, even a minimal impact is more than no impact. I certainly do my best to make an impression when I can!

  5. How old are these children?

    Sad. Yet, hopefully a teacher like you will nudge their consciousness. Don’t give up in gentleness. Maybe you should get the class to contribute to the charity organizations that buys a goat or water well for a village somewhere. An exercise for Christmas giving and thankfulness.

    Have these children ever met someone in a wheelchair, taken a tour of a food bank?

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