by Shaila Saint
With summer almost upon us, how many of us are figuring out the countless ways to keep our kiddos happy over the next few months? Whether planning happy family vacations, happy camp experiences, or making sure they’ll enjoy every minute of their visit to “The Happiest Place on Earth”, we parents sure go to great lengths to keep our kids happy, don’t we?
A web search I did on “raising happy children” came up with 39,300,000 results, so it must be important. In fact, a favorite exercise in my classes is to have parents visualize their children at age 18 and list the top adjectives they hope will describe them as adults. In the 12 years I’ve been doing this, “happy” has always been one of the top words on the list. And why not? I think most of us want our children to be happy, both now and in the future. But does striving to keep our children happy truly translate into creating happy adults?
Maybe not. I recently read a very thought provoking article entitled, “How to Land your Kid in Therapy. Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods” ( http://www.theatlantic. com/magazine/ archive/2011/07/howto- land-your-kid-in-therapy/8555/). The article explores the possible consequences of protecting our children from unhappiness, and how it may affect and diminish their happiness as adults. The author, Lori Gottlieb, is a pychotherapist and mother, who reports that she and her colleagues are seeing more and more patients in their 20‘s and 30‘s who seem to come from loving and stable families, yet suffer from depression, anxiety, and a general sense of emptiness.
“Many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment…with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong,” explains Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA. The article discusses how these protections are preventing our children from developing, what Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist, calls “psychological immunity.” Just like our body’s immune system needs to be exposed to pathogens to know how to respond to an attack…”kids need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle….and yet parents often have this instantaneous reaction to unpleasantness, which is ‘I can fix this.”
I can definitely recount many of my “fix-it” moments as a parent, yet one stands out for the lesson it taught me. When driving Conor, about 8 yearsold, to his soccer game, he began complaining that he didn’t get as much playing time as other boys on the team. Just as I was about to respond in my most empathetic way (and was strategizing the conversation I was going to have with the coach to “fix” things) I heard my husband tell him, “You don’t play that much because you’re not as good.” The silence from the back seat was almost as intense as the sinking feeling in my stomach. “Poor Conor,” I thought. “How is that hurtful comment going to make him feel? Angry? Hurt? Or maybe even (gulp)…UNHAPPY?” But I held my tongue, knowing deep down that my husband was right. It may have been upsetting, but it was a fact. And yes, that was a tough season for him (and me) as I watched him struggle through not playing much, getting frustrated, and often wanting to quit. But he survived. In fact, I think he more than survived. That season gave him a little perspective and humility, and definitely helped us both develop more confidence to face a struggle and come out standing (not to mention motivating him to practice his soccer skills)! As author Wendy Mogel implored, “Please let them be devastated at age 6…many times on the soccer field …and not have their first devastation be in college!”
Yet I think about the countless ways we parents and the institutions we’re associated with, strive to “fix” things for our children and keep them happy. These include the infant contraptions with non-stop stimulation, the contrived and controlled playdates that have replaced spontaneous neighborhood play, the over the top birthday parties starting in preschool, the loss of school P.E. games that seem too violent, and the trophies given to everyone, so no one ever feels hurt or left out. “Nowadays, it’s not enough to be happy—if you can be even happier,” Gottlieb notes as she observes this phenomenon as being truly unique to our generation. “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.”
I recently asked my dad, a very positive and happy person who has definitely seen his share of struggles, how he viewed happiness in terms of raising his children. He and my mom’s goals as parents, he said simply, were to raise responsible and successful individuals. He talked about the importance of not giving us everything we wanted all the time, and never giving us the feeling of being entitled. Happiness was never the goal he said, but hopefully a nice outcome from building up our own inner satisfaction. He actually likened it to sleep. If we set the foundations to get rest, internally and externally, than sleep will hopefully be the outcome. The same could be said for happiness. His viewpoint was reinforced in the article. “Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing,” said Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory. “But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.”
So as summer settles upon us, let’s take some of this to heart, when listening to the less than “happy” feelings from our dear offsprings– be it their struggle with boredom from ALL that free time on their hands, the summer camp they hate to attend, or losing out to their siblings for prime car seat territory during the long family road trip. Maybe by allowing them to experience these small struggles now, we are building up their psychological immunity to face and conquer the bigger and inevitable challenges that lay down the road. And feel the happier for it!