Parenting & The Pursuit of Happiness

A few questions have been rattling around in my head lately on the subject of happiness. Specifically, the ways in which I parent with the goal of my child’s individual happiness in mind. I wonder: Should parents strive to make their kids happy? Is ensuring someone else’s happiness even possible? What assumptions do we make when we take responsibility for another person’s happiness?

Instead of saying, “I just want my kids to be happy,” should we focus on more concrete qualities and outcomes for them, like say, “I just want my kids to be socially responsible citizens” or “I just want my kids to have loving, healthy relationships”. Might happiness be a by-product of these and other pursuits anyway?

Because really, how do our kids feel about our desire for them to be happy? Are we causing them undue stress over it? Are we causing ourselves undue stress over it?

In my work as a parent coach, I have seen that most parents suffer not from any real problem with their child, but from their own unrealistic expectations.

Adam Phillips, a British psychoanalyst has this to say on the subject of happiness as a goal in parenting:

It is unrealistic, I think – and by “unrealistic” I mean it is a demand that cannot be met – to assume that if all goes well in a child’s life, he or she will be happy. Not because life is the kind of thing that doesn’t make you happy; but because happiness is not something one can ask of a child. Children, I think, suffer – in a way that adults don’t always realize – under the pressure their parents put on them to be happy, which is the pressure not to make their parents unhappy, or more unhappy than they already are.

Despite a parent’s best efforts, some children will just not be that happy. Some children are prone to anxiety; some are hyper-sensitive; some are worriers; and some simply don’t express their contentment in the obvious ways. At a certain point, parents have to accept these temperamental differences and realize the limitations of any human to control life and program the human spirit.

Of course, I want my children to be happy – now and as adults. But the truth is, I am not responsible for their happiness, and they are not responsible for mine. We cannot treat children like antidepressants.

No matter how good a life I provide, no matter how much I love them, no matter how many good experiences they have, my children will still experience the sharp pains of life and have periods of deep unhappiness. They will face disappointment, failure, and rejection. I cannot shield them from this reality, nor should I even try as hard as I do.

I am responsible for their health and well-being. I am responsible for loving them, teaching them, discipling them, protecting them, and modeling for them what a whole, mature human life looks like. Let me qualify “loving them” with the goal of happiness in mind. Frequently, loving our kids means the opposite of their happiness. It means saying no and setting limits. Sometimes it means allowing them to suffer the natural consequences of their own poor decisions. Loving my child well means allowing them to feel disappointed, angry, or even ashamed; even though it breaks my heart as a parent to watch my child experience such difficult emotions. I have to allow my children to fail and to figure out how to overcome failure without rushing in to fix things for them.

So what should parents aim for if happiness cannot be asked of a child?

What can we directly teach or equip our children with in order that they may mostly flourish in life?

I’m putting this out there because I honestly don’t know. I just know that I want my children to grow up to be competent, compassionate, and connected to life. And if they find ways to do that – through purposeful work, through their relationships to self and others, and through other worthwhile activities – I’m hopeful that happiness will be a by-product of those endeavors.

And just in case you’re wondering what Harvard has to say about living a happy life, researchers there recently released their epic 75 year study on what men need to live a happy life (guessing some of the results might be different with female subjects, but anyway…). George Vaillant directed the study for over three decades and summed up a wealth of interesting findings with this most important one; “The seventy-five years and twenty million dollars expended on the Grant Study points to a straightforward five-word conclusion: Happiness is love.  Full stop.”

*Please understand that I am in no way making a comment about depression. Depression is a huge disruptor of happiness that requires medical intervention and support from loved ones. In this post, I am simply referring to the healthy range of emotions that children and adults must experience in life which include sadness, grief, anger, ennui, shame, and other ‘unhappy’ states of mind. As parents, we can support our children during these periods of unhappiness without viewing them as unhealthy or worrying about our children’s future well-being.