The Burden of Happiness
How wanting your child to be happy may be bad for his emotional health
Posted Aug 27, 2017
A friend was recently doing some yard work at her rural New Hampshire home. Once the excavator cleared a hole for planting she said “we should get better soil to replace it.” “Nope,” he replied, “the plants need to grow in the same rocky soil we dug out. If it’s too rich they won’t survive.” Then he added, “Just like our kids.”
This child rearing approach seems worlds away from parents I see as a psychologist in an affluent metropolitan area. All they want is for their children to be happy. And why not? It’s an admirable, selfless, desire; one that implies no expectation other than a child’s self-fulfillment. Did parents of the Middle Ages, huddled around a hearth, think only of their children’s happiness? Did the American frontiersman tell their young’uns to follow their passion? Doubtful. The plague, starvation, and wild animals were probably more on their minds. It is only in these, (semi) peaceful and (more or less) prosperous times that elusive happiness seems to be in reach. However, I fear its pursuit has become a burden both to the parents hoping to deliver it and to their offspring who are expected to achieve it.
Like my friend’s plants, children need the occasional challenge to develop resilience and thrive. This means that sometimes they should be left to their own devices, free to make mistakes and to achieve their own victories. However, in less than a century, rugged American attitudes about childrearing have taken a 180- degree turn from “children should be seen and not heard” to “OMG, I have not seen or heard my child in the last five minutes.” Not only are parents afraid to let children out of their sight; they can’t bear to see them experience setbacks or bad feelings. Rather than just prepare their kids for the future, fear has pushed well-meaning moms and dads to try and take full control of it.
With enough oversight, tutoring, and coaching we misguidedly believe we can commandeer a child’s natural course of development. But more likely? All this frantic preparation for our children’s future may be robbing them of it.
The kids I see feel depressed because they can’t live up to their parents’ expectations. One patient said “If I don't do something perfectly I feel inadequate. I would rather have someone angry at me then disappointed.” And no parent thinks their expectations are too high. “We are not like that,” they tell me. Yet this seemingly generous wish of happiness may be the most unrealistic expectation of all.
Do not fret: happiness is not the endgame of human existence. Life requires us to roll with the punches. There’s also this: The happiness we are chasing may really be our own. All of this nurturing and coddling isn’t just about them; it’s also about us. As we long for happiness that has eluded us despite our achievements, we look to our kids for reassurance and fulfillment. We invest everything we have in them, and then require a return on this investment in the form of good grades, awards, and acceptance at prestigious universities.
It’s a burden that’s not doing us or our children any good. With that in mind, I offer these suggestions:
1. The next time someone asks “how are you,” resist the urge to tell them about your kids. First tell them how you are. If you have nothing to say, perhaps it is time to get a life, go out with your spouse, develop a hobby.
2. Differentiate your child’s problems from your own. Thinking “I was just as unpopular in high school”, or “he reminds me of my brother, the addict,” are dangerous because you stop seeing your child for who he or she really is, or may become.
3. What regrets do you have about your childhood, your adult life? What mistakes do you hope your son or daughter does not make that you made? Now remember the lessons you learned from themand let children make their own missteps. Let them falter, let them fail.
4. Work on your own imperfections, not theirs.
5. Go to a church, synagogue, mosque, or national park and do some real worship. Look up at the stars to remind yourself how vast the universe is, and be humbled by our small place in it.
6. In the scheme of human existence happiness falls somewhere beneath having food, shelter, and access to healthcare. Thomas Jefferson never promised us ‘happiness,’ just the freedom to pursue it. According to a growing body of research it comes not from money or status but through altruism and connection to other people. So do some charity. Don’t just write a check, get your hands dirty. And bring your kids along.