Entitlement and the Pursuit of Happiness

“I just want him to be happy” is the most natural thing for a parent to say; it can also be the most dangerous. Life has unhappiness built in. If it’s not one thing it will be another. We want to spare our children. We want to protect them from pain and rescue them from suffering. This is completely understandable, but it is not particularly constructive. In fact, it is self-defeating. The pursuit of happiness makes happiness increasingly elusive.

Moreover, those “unhappy” things: conflict, mistakes, failure, loss, disappointment and loneliness are where so much important learning can take place. Unhappiness can morph into happiness if we focus on learning.

When my son Peter was 20, he lost touch with reality. (It’s not uncommon with kids that age, and it’s very disturbing.) He and his therapist decided that a year off from college might be a good thing. He rented a room in the house of family friends in San Francisco and got to work on a novel. One day I met him at a café for a cup of coffee, and we had a good long talk.

At one point he said: “I am so lonely.”

We talked about it for a while—rather he talked and I listened. I wanted so much to help, but what could I do? Finally, I said, “Why don’t you do research on loneliness?”

He stopped talking. “Huh. There’s an idea,” he said. “What do you mean?”

“I don’t know. I mean maybe you could write down what it feels like—the thoughts you have when you are feeling lonely. Keep a record. Heck maybe there’s a second novel in it.”

“Huh,” he said again. “Interesting.”

And that was it. Our conversation continued, and I heard no more about it for years. But it turns out I had said a good thing. Years later we as were talking by the fire, he said, “Remember that time you told me to do research on loneliness? That was some of the best advice you ever gave me.”

Life will deal out suffering, despite our efforts to avoid it. Our children will be lonely; they will make mistakes; they will fail; they will lose, they will suffer disappointment and experience loss. Avoidance of such challenges compromises learning.

For children challenge is the game, and they are wired for it. Watch a child in the first years of life; each moment is a challenge. Getting fed, turning over, crawling, walking, learning to swim or ride a bike, making it in school—tears and laughter will accompany it all. It’s all play. It’s all work. It’s all making something of yourself …and making something of yourself is a non-stop challenge till you die.

Sure, maybe we’ll get some time in the sun by the pool, but even at rest the brain is working. It’s consolidating, building on the learnings from yesterday’s challenges, and getting ready for tomorrow’s. That’s what “recreation” is.

Often I hear: Why do kids feel so entitled these days? How are parents causing this? Is it the limitless access to stuff? The expectation of immediate gratification?

Feeling entitled to happiness can come quite naturally to American children from a combination of affluence, the need to alleviate pain in those we love, and our natural tendency to want “better” for our children. In America, why not? Sky’s the limit. What’s standing in the way? Nothing!

And that is what is standing in the way. “No Problem” does not yield happiness. It yields doldrums, aimlessness, and boredom.

Sometimes a challenge is thrust upon us by luck; perhaps our parents or teachers decided we needed it; perhaps we chose it ourselves; perhaps we inadvertently created it; perhaps it’s our karma. Where the challenge came from doesn’t actually matter. The trick is to treat all challenges as gifts.

The pursuit of happiness is an exercise in seeing challenges as opportunities to make decisions, create moments, and learn.


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24 thoughts on “Entitlement and the Pursuit of Happiness

  1. Rick that is an awesome heartfelt blog that brought tears to my eyes. Thank you so much for writing it and for posting it on my fb page.
    It reminds me of a journal article I read when I was in school studying for my psychology degree, about a counselor who met years later with a client who he had only seen for a few minutes. The client looked him up and came to thank him for the enormous changes that he helped him make in his life. The counselor remembered only a single session that included testing then incarcerated client. When he asked the client how do you feel I helped you in that single session? The clients answer was that in giving back the results of his test, the counselor told him he believed the man was very smart and had the potential to do something really special with his life. The client then told him it was that belief in him that fueled him for years, and helped him turn his life around, to get out of prison, and to go on to become the very successful and contributing member of his community.
    Thanks for reminding me about the good that can be accomplished by the belief in others.
    Miles Cobbett

  2. I was very touched by this and I hope that parents all over the world read and apply this to their lives for their precious children. Unconditional love is the greatest gift of all. I hope your son continues his journey with passion and rises above the sun!

  3. Thank you, both. Yes, Peter is doing just great, and I am very proud of him. Teaching, writing, scheming to change the education profession, living in Japan. I have two Japanese grandsons!!!
    But the main thing is he is such a great guy–someone one always feels grateful that you have a chance to be around him.
    Funny thing that word “proud.” Why should I be proud. I didn’t really do anything. He is doing it all.

  4. Rick, I can’t thank you enough for this beautiful, sensational post. Brave, too.

    I recently shared (on my blog) a stunning 3 minute video of a 5 month old infant (not mobile yet) struggling to grasp a toy that was just beyond her reach. It is a long 3 minutes for sure! But the baby is focused, excited, tenacious, not upset or frustrated in the least. This is a baby who is being trusted to seek challenges and not always succeed. In this video, she does succeed! Still, here is one parent’s comment: “what if she is learning that there is nobody who would help her when she needs it? that her parents will stand by and watch how she struggles without helping her? what if she’s learning that she should not rely on anybody especially her parents in the hour of need?”

    We have to start trusting children to live life.

  5. I absolutely love this post- I love that it applies to all of us at every age. I could relate to it right now, in light of challenges I’m facing, but I can also apply it to my children and parenting, and above Lisa applies it to infancy! Such good thoughts – thanks for putting it out there and expressing it so well. This post is full of some great quotes, as well:

    “The pursuit of happiness makes happiness increasingly elusive.”

    “Unhappiness can morph into happiness if we focus on learning.”

    “The trick is to treat all challenges as gifts.”

    “The pursuit of happiness is an exercise in seeing challenges as opportunities to make decisions, create moments, and learn.”

  6. Thank you for shedding light on the cons of over parenting. True, it all stems from love but our children need to live too. It’s not about keeping them from hurting, it’s about instilling the strength in them to get up and proceed more consciously. I would say the same for parents. Our challenges can, ultimately, be our strengths.

  7. Thank you for this inspiring article. I am an enthusiastic reader of your blog and a mother to two lovely girls. This is my first attempt to write to you and your wonderful audience.

    I use the words ‘happy’ and ‘healthy’ whenever my husband and I have had discussions about our children. He smiled silently every time I used the word ‘happy’ and I think he was waiting for me to correct myself and I did. Finally, I used the word ‘mindful’ instead of ‘happy’. Let us just say, that our conversations got more meaningful after that.

    I now believe (and often need a reminder:)) that my girls and I will absorb, engage and reflect on new situations and environments in a time and manner that centers on embracing and discovering ourselves and those around us. Hopefully, we continue on this path of learning and relearning from lifes’ experiences.

  8. Rick, I really like your perspective and what you have to say. I hope it is OK to repost to my facebook page where I like to post article that I wish I had written. Your writing and ideas are solid! Thank you. Sue

  9. Hi Rick,
    Great article and pertinent. My youngest daughter just got married to a great guy and she has it all together. My oldest daughter has struggled and it has been my greatest challenge in knowing how to support her without “enabling” her. The problem with kids is they don’t come with a user’s manual. (Sorry I will miss the reunion next week.) Andy

  10. I’m very sorry you won’t be there, too.
    Your point about kids is so important, especially if we think it’s all up to us and we’ll ruin them. We have power, but they have their own internal geni. No wonder the Greeks called it destiny.

  11. Rick,
    That was a terrific post, and reminded me of an instructive moment for one of my sons. He was asked to give a graduation speech for middle school (of all things), and he chose the theme “In praise of Failure.” Before the event, the Principal edited the speech and forced him to change the title because she thought it would be a “downer.” I protested about censorship. My boy asked me to stop protesting so much, and delivered the speech anyway. His classmates loved it, and recognized the point immediately.

  12. What very wise and helpful words you speak. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. So many young people need to hear this message, and so many older people need to remember it.

  13. I’m new to your blog and so glad I followed a link to this post. I’ve learned much about myself as a person and as a parent from reading this and I hope I can pass on some of this wisdom to my kids… thank you.

  14. Dear Rick,
    I have been thinking a lot about this very issue, but from a different perspective. My thoughts have been directed at the role of technology in the process of dehumanization that is so prevalent now in our world. It totally connects to your piece on entitlement and the pursuit of happiness in that it deals with limit setting and what happiness really means.

    You and I have “talked” about this already in our emails, but for the sake of the blog and others reading let me sum it up from the beginning.

    I think that the root of a lot of conflict and confusion out there is the misinformation about crying. When our children cry, we feel pain; whether it be pain from empathy, or anger, or guilt, or frustration, or embarrassment, it doesn’t really matter. We often try to stop them from crying, maybe because we think that if they stop crying, they stop hurting. (We often don’t want to feel that bad ourselves: seeing them cry makes us feel bad.) What many don’t realize is that crying is actually a healing process and it is essential to the healing process of human beings. When we stop our children from crying, we are inadvertently cutting off their healing processes. This will leave them not as connected to their own feelings, intelligence, joy and connection to themselves and the world around them. If you have ever had a really good cry, you know what I mean. The world is clearer after a good cry. It is like a rainstorm cleaning the world off of a layer of dust and pollen, and grime.

    When parents do not say no to their children because they do not want to see them unhappy, aka crying, having a tantrum, meltdown, whatever –we will often buy them what they want or give them what they want instead of setting a limit that moment. What we don’t realize is that we have taken away the opportunity for them to get to cry about wanting and not getting. Human beings want all the time — it is actually a good thing. We want our mommy’s or daddy’s attention, we want more connection, we want to cuddle, we want closeness, we want love – both to give and receive, we want a better world, we want better for our friends and family, we want better for our communities. That wanting is what motivates us to work hard, fight for justice, reach out to other human beings…

    If we stop setting limits in order to just see them happy for that one moment, we take away that valuable opportunity to cry in that moment of wanting and not getting. They have lost a golden opportunity to heal a little.

    What technology has done via the television, (the electronic babysitter) video games, portable DVD players, and now smartphones, ipads, etc. is given parents a ready tool that works miraculously well as a pacifier for all young people. Now, instead of children learning to defer gratification, learn patience, be flexible and adaptable human beings, they learn to disconnect from all their feelings and they don’t get a chance to work on those feelings of wanting or needing, or anger, or sadness, or even joy. (I have seen parents shush their children when they are excited and happy about something. We were not in a library or place where they had to be quiet. It’s not even ok to be too joyful anymore in cases. I think this has to do with middle class/upper class patterns of good behavior and politeness that have often served to cut people off from true expressions of themselves.)

    Of course we see a rising number of ADD and ADHD, learning issues, special ed. in the classrooms – children are not getting the opportunity to unload their feelings anywhere because of electronic devices and this causes them to be much less flexible, adaptable and attentive. An overload of feelings means less space, ergo less attention, available for learning and living.

    The smaller and more portable these mind and emotion numbing devices have become, the easier it has become for parents to avoid those moments of limit setting: those embarrassing moments of my child having a meltdown in the street or in the supermarket or at school in front of all the other parents or teachers.

    I admit it: I have felt plenty of embarrassment (guilt, frustration and anger too.) when my son has decided to have a meltdown in public. It is so very difficult to allow my little guy to feel everything that he needs to feel in order to heal. But I am certain that it is the greatest gift that I can give him –to just listen to him and stay close when he is feeling that bad, and try not to let my feelings dictate how I react. And certainly not hand him an electronic pacifier. (Or a sweet, for that matter!)

    With enormous appreciation for your wise observations in all your articles,

  15. What a pleasure to see such a replete, and inevitably popular, post; one that resonates with realities and recognitions down a full 19 layers of comment!

    “Entitlement and the Pursuit of Happiness” question mark …

    Absolutely, YES; children – indeed every one of us – are fully entitled to life’s most basic facilities and tools so that the Genius In Them can pursue the happinesses of their choice, and all else that they wish for. Certainly we all must experience unhappiness to know happiness; that’s just how it goes in this our universe.

    YES; children are entitled to their own environments, physical and mental; their own spaces and times, and thus speeds (their own fastness or slowness of individual learnings and achievements).

    YES; they are entitled to environments made safe and comfortable by their older significant others, with clear boundaries specified ahead of time; these spaces amply stocked with suitable paraphernalia that they can explore and discover, with food, drink and diaper changes to sustain them.

    YES; every child is entitled to having the love that encompassed them at conception continue unabated, but WITHOUT any “possession” that is so often confused with love.

    YES; we are all entitled to the creation of our own effects; our own ideas, actions and creations implemented so that we discover the benefits and consequences of what we do, WITHOUT arbitrary interference.

    YES; similarly, we are all entitled to the absolute necessity of making our own mistakes, and learning whatever it is that we learn from those mistakes.

    YES; children, students and apprentices are entitled to ask for and be offered guidance to help them overcome challenges that may be too challenging WITHOUT having their task confiscated, diluted or polluted by one who “knows-best.”

    YES; when things go right; we are all entitled to seek and be offered validation for the good, for the success, for the ‘win’ in what was created (carefully avoiding an evaluation of the person who did the creating).

    YES; children especially are most entitled to the full range, depths and magnitudes of their feelings; they need to explore them, examine them and evaluate their effects and learn from them so as to never be afraid of them. Again, ABSENCE of outside interference is key although younger persons appreciate knowing that a trusted safety net is close by if things get overwhelming and, after they come through that “dark cloud”, to help them re-orientate and, likely, celebrate.

    These are just my impromptu sketches of some of life’s most basic entitlements, laid out in a rough-hewn sequence.

    My thanks to Amy for inspiring the last one, on feelings, and reminding me of my handlings of my daughter, then aged about 4 years. I was, still am, a single parent of her and her 13-month older brother. She had problems getting to sleep and was “borderline colic”, prone to incredibly wild angry outbursts. Fortunately her brother was great; he fell asleep as soon as he hit the pillow and could sleep through an earthquake, so one less worry for me.

    But his sister yelled, screamed, fought me and herself; arms and legs flailing, bent on self-destruction as I thought. I focused entirely on her, staying largely silent and physically restraining her more outlandish moves; one time she was upside down with my arms around her waist, and she bit my leg until it bloodied.

    The lady downstairs, a single mother of three daughters, twice came up, banged on our door, and urged me to let her help. I had no idea what her ‘help’ might involve and besides, standing with her at the front door meant I was not with my child, providing her with what I instinctively knew was needed.

    The child, both children, always came through – come through – whatever “dark storm cloud” engulfs them. By now they know that I am always there for them, alongside them, understanding but not interfering, until they reach the inevitable sunlight on the other side of the cloud. Sometimes we debrief afterwards, sometimes not because the understandings are already clear.

    Today, at age 13, my daughter is as capable, cool, calm and collected as one could wish for. Both of them are, and both now have a good relationship with their mother.

    Respectfully submitted by,
    Parent Peter in Toronto,

  16. Thank you Rick! I am the author of “School Readiness for Parents & Children, K-12. A 23 year educator. I cannot tell you how much I welcome this blog and the message that you share. If our children are to survive, they must be taught and guided through life challenging situations. Accountability and responsibility. When loving parents and other loving adults mentor these expectation, life skills regains priority for successful careers.

    Thank you,
    Author – Wanda J.R. Prowell
    Family and Consumer Science, educator

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