Monday, July 11, 2016

Parents: Your Goal Is Not to Make Your Kids Happy

Tiger swallowtail in our back yard

Lori Gotlieb, in "How to Land Your Kid in Therapy," writes of the American obsession with and quest for "happiness," and the American parental goal of raising one's children to be very, very "happy."

She writes: "Nowadays, it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier. The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way." Ironically, this way of thinking will end up making people very unhappy and in need of a lot of therapy to set them straight.

Gretchen Rubin, author of the The Happiness Project, says, "Happiness doesn't always make you happy." I think she means to say something like: to make "happiness" one's life pursuit will not end up with you being "happy." Or perhaps: If you mean by 'happiness' the removal of anything that would unsettle or disappoint or trouble you, then the achievement of such will leave you miserable and in need of help.

Gotlieb says that social science backs her up on this. She writes:

“Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing. But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster. It’s precisely this goal, though, that many modern parents focus on obsessively—only to see it backfire. Observing this phenomenon, my colleagues and I began to wonder: Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?"

The answer is: yes. Happiness sought for its own sake will leave you miserable. The only happiness worth happening is happiness as a byproduct.

Parents, therefore, must allow unhappiness and misery in the lives of their  children. To shelter them from this is to destine them to an adulthood of therapy. "Parental overinvestment is contributing to a burgeoning generational narcissism that’s hurting our kids."

Harvard child psychologist Dan Kindlon
 says, “You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack. Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle."

Why might parents try to protect their children from all unhappy events and work to make them eternally happy? One answer is: because it's really about the parents' own happiness, and not their children's. Read the entire Gotlieb article to see the reasoning behind this.

Infants and small child narcissists are happy because they are the center of the universe. But as they grow older this changes; indeed, it becomes a "big problem." So, parents, do not "protect" your child from all unhappiness. Obviously, don't manufacture pain and sorrow in your home. But life includes pain and sorrow. Guide your children through it, not around it (not possible anyway). Remember - even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...

My new book is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.