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Ron L. Deal

It was one of those frustrating parenting days when you realize that shaping a child’s outward behavior - as difficult as that is - is easier than shaping their heart. Nan and I had been wrestling with one of our children who had a case of affluenza. In case you don’t know, affluenza is the not-so-medical diagnosis for those who have too much stuff and don’t appreciate it; it arises from affluence which is the virus that spoils thankfulness. (If you live on more than $1 a day, by the world’s standards you qualify as affluent.)

Our 10 year-old son (who will remain nameless to protect the guilty), had been coming home from school whining about all the stuff that other kids had that he wanted. “Austin has a TV in his room,” he grumbled. “And Terry has his own X-Box. Why can’t I get that?”

Among the attitudes we want for our children, gratitude is high on the list. It keeps us grounded in life and appreciative of others. Gratitude is a close cousin to humility, which is the antidote of pride and selfishness. Both are important for warding off affluenza.

As Nan and I reflected on our son’s troubling disease, I reviewed our previous parenting attempts to instill the attitude of gratitude in our son. From the time he was very young, we asked him to say, “thank you,” when given something. We insisted he say “please,” so he wouldn’t come to believe that what he wanted was his right to possess, and we modeled these manners ourselves.

As he got older, we taught him to save his money for things he really wanted - we didn’t buy everything for him - so he would cherish things more once he could afford them. We even waxed eloquent numerous times about the value of thankfulness. The week affluenza took root, we had spoken with him about the difference between wants and needs (aren’t lectures supposed to convince children to agree with us and obey?). All our attempts were solid strategies for training a child; and yet, gratitude was no where to be found (good grief, parenting truly is a work in progress).

So, what were we going to do? That’s when I remembered: sometimes parents should step out of the way and give children experiences that teach powerful lessons they will not soon forget. It was time to orchestrate such an experience.

It happened to be Friday night - “family night,” as we call it. Our tradition is to eat pizza and rent movies to watch as a family. As we walked into our favorite pizza restaurant, I stopped our son and asked him question. “Have you ever heard the phrase ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’?”

“I think so,” he muttered.

“Well,” I replied, “you’re about to learn what it means.” Confusion filled his eyes. I explained, “We are going in to eat, but you are not. You will sit and watch the rest of us eat dinner. When we get home, you will not join us for movie time, but will be confined to your room for the evening. Throughout the weekend, you may not play video games, your MP3 player or watch TV. Oh, and by Monday I expect you to write an essay about what the phrase ‘you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ means to you.”

It was a long weekend (for all of us). But he survived. After a weekend of going without, his essay reflected the heart of someone who had realized how much he already possessed instead of focusing on what else he thought he needed. He taught himself (with a little help from his mom and me) to appreciate his blessings.

Thankfully, we conquered affluenza - at least until the next strain comes along.

Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.