Parenting toward Happiness

“I Just Want Him to be Happy”

Several years ago the mother of a 5th and 2nd grader came in to talk. She was in the early stages of a divorce and was having a lot of trouble with fifth grader John. About fifteen minutes into her descriptions of unpleasant incidents she said with tears just behind her eyes: “I only want him to be happy.”

“That is probably not a realistic objective right now,” I said.

It was the right thing to say. It was understandable that John was unhappy, and he had a perfect right to be unhappy. His parents were going through a divorce, for heaven’s sake.

But my statement has general validity, too. It is completely understandable for parents to want their children to be happy, but it is not particularly constructive as a goal. In fact, it is self-defeating. The pursuit of happiness makes happiness increasingly elusive.

There are many things we naturally want for our children: happiness, winning, achievement, a girl friend, success, mastery of academic skills, and so on. But often the aim must be different from the goal. If happiness is our goal for children, our aim must be to help them love a challenge. This is our best focus for helping them acquire the grit to live in life’s tensions—the confidence to learn from conflict, mistakes, disappointment, failure, loneliness and losing.

As I write this I know that I am running counter to a major drift in American society today. What are your thoughts?

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20 thoughts on “Parenting toward Happiness

  1. Interesting thoughts, Rick. If our goal is for them to love a challenge, I think it would be up to the manner in which you go about accomplishing that goal. Each child has a different temperament and views/tackles challenges in different ways.

    Perhaps not only building up resilience (as you call it, grit), also building the capacity for loving mistakes. The art of making mistakes over and over as an acceptable and expected practice to remove the fear that comes along with learning. I think too often we base our parenting on “fixing” mistakes and performing to certain standards. If we are parenting toward happiness, wouldn’t we want them to love the whole business of learning, and here I mean the natural curiosity about everything that surrounds them for their entire life, including school, relationships, disappointments and celebrations. And the ability to understand and think critically about those changes that happen now and in the future. Perhaps it’s not happiness we’re after… could it be social and emotional health and well-being instead?

  2. Rick, I think you hit the nail on the head. And Marjie, yes, I’d agree that maybe it’s social and emotional health and well being that we want for our children when we express the desire for them to be happy. But maybe we need to redefine what happiness means to include aspects of the definition you proposed.

    As you noted, social and emotional health requires that children develop resilience which comes from embracing the challenges life presents, and loving the mistakes. Better yet, maybe we could get rid of the idea of “mistakes” and just define all of life as exploration and learning.

    In the parent/baby classes I teach, when I ask parents about wishes for their children, every parent expresses the desire for their child to be happy. Some parents twist themselves into knots trying to ensure the happiness of their babies by trying to shield them from all discomfort or struggle.

    I try to help parents see that struggle- trying and failing, becoming frustrated, crying, taking a break, and coming back to try again is the way all learning happens ( and the very essence of life), and babies are capable and eager to enter the game.

    From early on, it’s possible for parents and teachers to honor the struggle and learning that’s happening by “holding the space”, and not intervening too soon to “save” the baby. It’s possible to be with the baby, to support them, and offer comfort , while honoring the baby’s quest for mastery.

    If you watch babies and toddlers closely, you will notice they don’t define an inability to accomplish goals the first time as failures or mistakes- it’s all just exploration, and opportunities for learning. The love of learning is innate!

    Children try, and try again, and in doing so, they develop resilience. If we don’t interfere too much, by overtaking the process, giving them the message that we think they can’t do something, or trying to ensure their “happiness” at all costs, they develop a sense of themselves as capable of facing all kinds of challenges- both physical and emotional. They also come to know they can count on support when they need it and they aren’t alone in the struggle.

    This is what I want for the children I care for and teach.

  3. Thank you for this post Rick and the opportunity to turn my thoughts in this direction. Lisa, I think the word that strikes me most from your passage is “honour”. When we step back and honour each individual for the gift that they bring to the fold, help her or him to use each gift for good in this world, they will be content – not always happy but satisfied for the most part which in turns brings more happiness than anything else.
    One of my son’s gifts has always been diplomacy… empathy… I recognized this long ago and found ways for him to use this gift. It has taken his dad a long time to realize that he will probably make very little money from this and yet he has finally realized that in following his gifts, he is in his element and therefore more content and happy.
    I always saw that my job as a teacher was to develop a relationship with the children so as to know and utilize their gifts through their passions – all else is just background extra “stuff”.


  4. A former colleague, a Director of College Counseling, Bill Mayher, author of The Myth of College Admissions, says that we should be in the business of creating happy 35 year-olds. It struck me as strange when he said it but the more I have thought about it, the more sense if makes. We’re too pre-occupied with the moment and trying to be sure our kids are having all their immediate needs and wants met and keeping them happy. And we’re missing the opportunities to teach them the value of investing for the long haul and learning the meaning of delayed gratification. There is way too much that is reflected in instant, newest, best, and disposable. I keep being returned to my conflict of values between the economic realities of “spend, buy, waste, want and borrow” ( a vicious cycle) and what I was taught which was “save, use, keep, have and give.”
    Finally, I heard someone say yesterday that happy children make happy parents and my question is whose happiness (content and satisfied) comes first?

  5. Very good points made by all, and to a very interesting question. To me it boils down to this: Are you preparing the child for the path or the path for the child? (I know I am not the first to use this analogy) Falling down in life is inevitable. Study after study shows that the most indulged children are also the most insecure and the least likely to take risks. I like the idea of trying to create happy 35 year olds. To me thie makes more sense. For Gary’s question about whose happiness comes first, I believe that for a happy family the order must be: 1. Self 2. Spouse 3. Child. Our society has this backwards and I believe this drags us down.

  6. I’ve written on this very topic here:

    And I’m not just posting that so people will go visit my blog; it’s because I had this discussion with my commenters and have said what I wanted to say about it there. “Happy” is a vague term that has many meanings for different people and is open to a variety of interpretations. In short, mine doesn’t have to do with wanting my children to be perky and cheerful and thrilled with life every moment of every day. It has to do with wanting to instill in them a sense of who they really are and work with them to recognize and be comfortable with that–positive and negative.

  7. A great topic, Rick.

    I am very interested in Carol Dweck’s growthmindset research and its application to education.

    See the Brainology program

    Disclosure I have met Prof. Dweck and am encouraging the school I’m involved with to add it to the curriculum.

  8. The French have two words for happy: “content”, which refers to the short term, “right now” happiness; and “heureux”, which refers to the longer term, underlying personality form of happiness.

    Being happy long term involves things like the sort of self-esteem that comes from having skills or having accomplished something worth-while. Acquiring the skills or achieving the worthwhile goals that will make you happy is hard work, and involves overcoming difficulties, which are sure to make you discontent (short-term unhappy), temporarily at least.

  9. Rick,
    This is simply put. Curiosity has the best of me about the reaction of the parent after you said, “This may not be a realistic objective right now.” I have wanted to use words like this before, but shy away as these can be very hurtful. Yet, what I realize is that by putting it plain and clear, there can be no misinterpretation. Also I wonder what suggestions you gave to this parent to help her move forward and help her child.

  10. She was grateful for the truth. Our society is so very confused about negative vs positive. If we disagree or say something “negative” it is assumed that it will “be very hurtful.” Not wanting to live that way (or run a school that way) I have been practicing telling the truth. The trick is to separate the cognitive content from the emotional content. I was very empathetic. She was suffering. She needed loving kindness, emotional support and… the truth. One doesn’t do anyone a favor by allowing them to keep kidding themselves or to continue down useless paths. I stopped thinking “positive/negative” anymore, and just try to discern what’s true with the other person.

  11. Rick, you are right, and you are way counter culture at least in the area of the world I work. How many unhappy kids with parents that want nothing but happiness for them do you think it will take to get to the tipping point culturally? My hunch is that the answer is too many. Thanks for pushing in this direction.

  12. Ryan, thank you. Good question. Reminds of “Mr. Stevenson, all thinking people are for you.” Stevenson: “That’s too bad, we need a majority.” I am more hopeful than Adlai Stevenson. 1) Trying to make unhappiness go away is futile, and people tend to tire of it long about age 35, 2) The direct drive toward immediate happiness tends to educate one in the direction of more indirect methods, and 3) It is a short cognitive distance to shift from short term goals to long term goals. But, tipping point? I don’t know, maybe never, maybe it is just about growing up.

  13. Dear Rick,
    The best book that I know on this topic is The Self-Esteem Trap by Polly Young-Eisendrath. She has a terrific “Exteme Parenting Makeover” workbook, which is a free download from her website:
    Happiness in the wisdom traditions of the east means happiness “without conditions” – that deep well of inner peace and joy that comes from developing our love-ability. If we can help children learn that, then we are transforming our world.

  14. Having grown up outside of the US but here in the US for the past 15 years, this topic of happiness has always been a bit of a culture shock for me! Maybe “the pursuit of happiness” does get engrained in your mind here, although it is really the pursuit of my happiness, not anyone else’s, isn’t it?
    So now maybe, it is about the pursuit of our kids’ happiness???
    Not for me. Short term, sure. I want to go to the park and kick the ball and have a great time and have my kids be happy. But long term, why is it any of my business if my kids are happy or not?

    With that in mind, I loved the following part of David Grossman’s latest book.
    Do notice what comes first here, strength or happiness? 🙂

    To The End Of The Land, around page 500 if I remember right:
    “And you know when you’re a kid, and some grown-up plays with you, you’re always afraid of when they’ll get sick of you? When they’ll look at their watch, when they’ll have something more important to do than be with you?”
    “But mom, she never got sick of it before I did, not with anything. I knew that no matter what, she’d never stop a game before me.”
    “That’s something that gives you strength for your whole life. That’s something that makes a person happy, isn’t it?”

  15. Thank you for saying this:

    If happiness is our goal for children, our aim must be to help them love a challenge. This is our best focus for helping them acquire the grit to live in life’s tensions—the confidence to learn from conflict, mistakes, disappointment, failure, loneliness and losing.

    My husband is a Scout Master and is amazed at how unwilling many of the scouts are to try something new or to do something hard. My son (13), while not perfect has been taught from an early age that life is hard and working is part of life and working hard is rewarding.

    He loves a challenge and has set a goal to earn his Eagle by 14. It makes me sad to see many of his fellow scouts who are given iPhones and all the “toys” of today and don’t have to work for any of it. They are not happy boys. And I worry how they will survive once they leave home.

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