Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The problem with happy kids

This post somehow disappeared from the archive, so I'm reposting.

Last week I passed our local playground, which was swarming with preschoolers and their parents. With a jolt I thought I bet I don't know a single person in there! When your youngest is seven, daily outings to the park are no longer a daily requirement.

Nowadays when I'm out and about I no longer have a long stream of kids in my wake, and moms no longer automatically turn with pleading eyes asking for advice. For all they know I'm a crotchety middle-aged spinster, not a mother of five. That's okay.

But there is one piece of wisdom I always yearn to offer younger mothers, and it is this:

Making your children happy is not the goal of parenting.

I know this sounds heretical, but it's true. The goal of parenting is to make your children capable of finding joy and contentment in their lives, regardless of the circumstances in which they find themselves.

Consider the focus of a parent with each of the outlooks below:

I want a happy kid”“I want a kid capable of joy and peace”
I prevent disappointmentI teach ways to handle disappointment
I avoid kid meltdownsI teach my child self control
I protect him from all hurtsWe explore forgiveness, assertiveness, empathy, and how to rebound
I minimize argumentsI model problem-solving skills
I accommodate desiresWe focus on delayed gratification and the difference between need and desire
I want to make my child like meI want my child to be capable of commitment, sacrifice and love
I want to eliminate conflictI want him to handle conflict well

I could go on, but you get the picture. The I-just-want-to-have-a-happy-kid trap makes it easy to overlook helping our kids develop basic coping skills they are absolutely going to need. We don't mean to neglect these skills. But in a society that's geared to consumerism and instant gratification, I daresay it's probably necessary to focus intentionally on building them.

My two cents for the day. Your thoughts?


  1. honey, i am SO with you on this one. i do believe it's important to be happy, and i want my children to be happy. not that fairytale everything's-gonna-be-fine happy, rather the life-is-wonderful-though-sometimes-it-sucks-but-i-can-handle-that happy.

    it irritated me to no end when i'd hear parents tell their kids "i'll always be there for you". no one has a crystal ball, and that's a promise that's impossible to keep. when kids figure out that their parents are mortal and imperfect, if they've been lied to in that way, i think it causes them to reassess the veracity of everything else their parents may have told or promised them.

    even from when they were little, i told my kids that i'd always love them, and i'd always do my best to protect them, but it was a partenership and they had to take some responsibility also for taking care of themselves. the other playground moms thought that was a bit much. oh, how i wish i had known you when my kids were little, but how grateful i am that i know you now!

  2. Julia, I LOVE this post! I am the editor of my church newsletter and would love to reprint this in the May issue. My email is wyattjane@zoominternet.net. Please let me know if it's ok with you to reprint. thanks, Jane

  3. @Liz,
    I remember a conversation we had after 9/11 about what you told your kids then. Your kids are hardier than mine, and more naturally resilient (I think I've taught mine every ounce of resilience they have), so I'm not as blunt as you are (but we've always known that). I'm with you on not making promises I can't keep. I think it dilutes the promises I can make and can keep... and the other truths in life that are there, always.

    Happy pesach, good friend.

  4. The Americans: Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The French: Liberty, equality, brotherhood. I think they're on to something.

    On the way to the subway this morning, Zeke told me all about the tv shows and video games he's deprived of. I told him I was sorry he led such a terrible life. Some woman nearby shot me a look.

  5. Post from Michelle (minus private info!):
    Julia - I am your neighbor and I have been reading your blog for over a year now. I love your posts and wisdom on parenthood, and I think you are spot on. I am one of those moms with a preschooler at the playground (and a newborn as well!) and agree wholeheartedly that it is important to teach children that they cannot always have what they want and give them the tools to handle disappointment, as it will surely come their way. At this stage, mommy not being the one (instead of daddy) to put on my pjs is a battle we face, but they have to learn to deal with the most basic of disappointment in some way, right?

    Thanks as always for your posts -

  6. I also love this post and every true wise word in it.

    Also, could you please send me your address- your home, physical address? Thanks


  7. I am the mother of two nicely grown men and I am a public school teacher, closer to the end of my career than the beginning. A student of mine recently wrote in his journal that his "self of steam" had been damaged when another teacher corrected him in class. He was angry and knew his "rights." This kid doesn't happen to have much support at home or I am sure the teacher in question would have gotten an equally angry phone call. When I attempted to explain self-esteem as the good feeling you get when you know you've done your best, I was met with a recital of "rights."

    I am troubled by parents who want teachers to fix everything from their kids' grades to their kids' friends. As a mom and an educator, I am chagrined that those with disabilities are not always supported (at home) to accept those disabilities and practice ways to compensate for them. My kid Mike and I know the joy that can come from that--and the "self of steam" that is only built by hard work. There just aren't any quick fixes out there--well, except for maybe a good night's sleep...

  8. I couldn't agree more! I want our kids and grandkids to be happy, but primarily I want them to be strong physically, mentally, and spiritually. I want them to be able to cope with the ever-changing world around them and keep their faith and their values intact. I have followed your kids since the beginning of Daily Guideposts, and I can't believe they're already this old. You and your husband are doing an amazing job of parenting! If you get a chance, please check out my new trailer for Hot Issues, Cool Choices, my book on bullying, on You Tube.

  9. I think it's every parents goal to raise happy healthy kids. I have raised 5 kids. 2 I did not carry and deliver,but mine all the same. I have grandkids now that I am very blessed to be part of their lives. I love your peace and joy list. It does focus the handling of life and maturing on the children and let's the parents be the guide in their lives. I am passing this on to my munchkin's parents. Thank you Julia.

  10. I still follow you around hunting for parenting advice! With only one little person I am often stumped at how to "create" obstacles for her to overcome. How to allow her to learn self sufficiency, without acting like a bitchy teenager! With recent deaths and another on impending, she is learning alot about facing hard times and there is nothing I can do to protect her from the hurt. It breaks my heart, but also makes me proud that at such a young age she is facing the challenges and processing things that many grown ups do not know what to do with! Thanks for always being you and putting it all in perspective!!!