Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Parents: Your Goal Is Not to Make Your Kids Happy


There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
a time to mourn and a time to dance...
Ecclesiastes 3:1-4
Life contains glad times and sad times, easy times and hard times. When our boys were little, and our cat died, this was a sad time. A hard time. It was a time to grieve. 

During this loss Linda and I allowed our boys to be sad. We did not try to make them happy by giving emotional candy, or promising to take them to Disney World. To do that would be to create little narcissists, who could eventually become big narcissists. (On Big Narcissism and the American culture of "safetyism," see Lukionoff and Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind; also Soares, Panic Attack.)

A good parent wants their child to flourish in life. Part of the maturing process is helping them go through things that do not go their way. The child wants X, but X is denied them. The mentoring parent is to help the child understand that part of life is flourishing even in the midst of unfulfilled desires. The child may be sad, and that's not all bad. 

The goal here is not to keep the child happy. 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 therapy to set them straight.

Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-selling The Happiness Project, says: "Happiness doesn't always make you happy." To make happiness one's life pursuit will not end up with you being happy. If "happiness" means the removal of anything that would unsettle or disappoint or trouble you, then the achievement of that will leave you miserable and in need of help. 

Rubin writes:

“Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing,” Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, told me. “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 wanting. 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 psycho- and drug 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 hard so as 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 negative feedback. Think future. We want our kids to do well. This includes helping them walk through the dark valleys of life.