There is a post I wrote some time back about wanting to raise “happy, confident and successful” children. Since writing that post, a great many number of things have happened that have made me reconsider one aspect of that desire – the part about raising “happy” children. I haven’t changed my stance. Of course I would like my children to be happy. Any parent would. However, it is beginning to dawn upon me that many of us, even with all our good intentions, are going about it the wrong way.
When I was in school, a teacher raised a very interesting point in a philosophical discussion we were having. The discussion was about what we would want if we could have anything we desired and someone answered “happiness”. Our teacher then asked, “What do you mean by happiness?” It seems like such a simple desire – wanting happiness – but the journey can get pretty convoluted if you go about it the wrong way.
There is a story I like to share because it describes my two boys so well. I’m sharing it because I think it illustrates very well why trying to make someone happy can be so challenging.
The Optimist and the Pessimist
A family had twin boys – one was an eternal optimist and the other a pessimist. To see if he could mute their dispositions a little, the father filled one room full of every imaginable toy and another room full of horse manure. He took the pessimist twin into the room full of toys. Upon entering and seeing all the toys, the pessimist twin burst into tears.
Startled, the father asked, “Why are you crying?”
The pessimist replied, “I can’t play with these toys because I might break them!”
Then the father took the optimist twin to the room full of manure. Again, to his surprise, the optimist twin dropped to his hands and knees and started digging through the manure gleefully.
The father exclaimed, “What are you doing?”
The optimist twin replied, “There’s so much manure in here there’s got to be a pony somewhere!”
Like the optimist and the pessimist, sometimes it seems like nothing we do can make Aristotle happy, while Hercules is happy no matter what we do. When you make it your goal to make someone happy, you can feel frustrated when all your efforts end up in vain. As Jennifer Senior states in her TEDTalk, “A child’s happiness is a very unfair burden to place on a parent. And happiness is an even more unfair burden to place on a kid.”
We have become so obsessed with our children’s happiness that we end up trying to protect them against experiences that threaten that happiness even if these experiences are beneficial for their development. To illustrate the absurdity of the problem, here is an example from Jennifer Senior:
“We are now so anxious to protect our kids from the world’s ugliness that we now shield them from “Sesame Street.” … if you go out and you buy the first few episodes of “Sesame Street” on DVD, … you will find a warning at the beginning saying that the content is not suitable for children… When asked about this by The New York Times, a producer for the show gave a variety of explanations. One was that Cookie Monster smoked a pipe in one skit and then swallowed it… But the thing that stuck with me is she said that she didn’t know whether Oscar the Grouch could be invented today because he was too depressive.”
Before I get misconstrued, let me clarify… I’m not suggesting that we throw our children under a bus just so they can have the “necessary” life experience to grow from. We can still desire to raise a happy child but a distinction has to be made – we are NOT responsible for our children’s happiness. Making our children’s happiness our goal in life is an impossible goal and we will be doomed to fail. Instead of making happiness the goal, we should be focusing on helping children develop the life skills they require so they can be responsible for the happiness and meaning in their own lives. It can be as fundamental as helping our children understand that happiness is a choice – that they can either choose to be happy or sad, and that no one can make them happy or sad unless they allow it.
Of course, teaching a child that lesson can be tricky. So here are some things that we can do to help our children find their own way…
- Choose happiness for ourselves – we can’t teach our children to choose happiness if we aren’t choosing it for ourselves
- Practicing mindfulness – learning to stay focused and be in the present
- Keeping a gratitude diary – Cultivating an “attitude of gratitude” has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, less anxiety and depression, higher long-term satisfaction with life and kinder behavior toward others, including romantic partners (New York Times)
- Getting back to nature – Studies have shown that exposure to nature directly improves happiness:
- Green space can make people happier for years – American Chemical Society (2014)
- Happiness is greater in natural environments – Global Environmental Change (2013)
- Teach the value of having friends – even the most introverted person benefits from social connection because friendship has been found to be the key to happiness
- The power of play
- “Neuroscience has demonstrated how playfulness and play activities are linked to the increase in resilience of a person to shocks from their environment, and increased tolerance of stressors from within and outside the person.” – Energetics Institute
- “There has been a growing trend in research in the field of positive psychology that is looking at the health benefits of adult play. Play can engage that sense of flow, where your abilities meet the challenge of the task and cultivate positive qualities. Not only can engaging in play help reduce stress, but in my experience it can also give us a sense of pleasure and satisfaction or mastery that support us working with anxiety and depression.” – Elisha Goldstein PH.D.
They say that if you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish, you feed him for life. I guess that’s a pretty good analogy to what we are trying to achieve – teaching our children how to fish for happiness rather than just giving it to them.
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