“In this age of intense confusion, there is just one goal upon which all parents can agree, and that is, whether they are tiger moms or hippie moms, helicopters or drones, our kids’ happiness is paramount.” — Jennifer Senior, author of All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood [public library]
What is the most fundamental thing parents want for their children? Most people would probably say that, beyond any other desire, they just want their kids to be happy. In the United States, our first official founding document, leads off with the assertion that all “men” (which we now interpret to mean “people”) are “endowed by their Creator” (presumably God) with “certain unalienable rights.” Three rights are listed in that first sentence. Number three on the list is “the pursuit of happiness.” Happiness is not simply something we all aspire to (for ourselves, our children, and people we care about); in the United States the pursuit of this psychological state is a right so fundamental that it is assumed to be “self-evident” to every human on the planet.
And pursue it we do, with gusto, determination and sometimes desperation, through avenues emotional, spiritual and physical. (I would argue that the consumer economy is one of the products of our never-ending quest for happiness, but that’s a topic for a different blog than this one.) My generation of parents (and I include myself) is particularly dedicated to ensuring our children’s happiness.
In my early years as a parent, I believed that my son should never have to cope with unhappiness. I believed that if he had to “cope,” I was doing something wrong. If he had to cope, it meant he was experiencing harm. It meant someone—most likely me—had failed to protect him or provide what he needed.
It’s not that I believed that I should never have had to cope with hard circumstances as a child. The truth is that I’d never examined my visceral response to the word or what the word actually means. There were times when my son struggled—especially as he entered puberty—and I felt afraid for him. I talked with a wise friend about my worries. She reassured me about my son’s coping skills, and talked about how important they are to all of us in weathering the trials and tribulations that life consistently metes out.
I’d never thought of coping as a healthy strategy that we all use to keep going when life is hard. While it’s true that some coping mechanisms may be harmful or counterproductive in the long or short run, coping is something we all do. Failure to cope is a big problem. Dictionary.com defines cope as: “1) to struggle or deal, especially on fairly even terms or with some degree of success; and 2) to face and deal with responsibilities, problems, or difficulties, especially successfully or in a calm or adequate manner.” Wiktionary defines it, “To deal effectively with something difficult.”
Looking at those definitions, I wonder about my clueless interpretation of the word. Struggling is a fact of life, and we all hope to come out of the struggle feeling successful and adequate to the task. If we never have to struggle as children, we will be ill-equipped to deal with lots and lots of difficult things as adults.
Jennifer Senior, in a compelling TED talk (in which you can hear her say the sentence I quote at the beginning of this post) observes that many shelves in your local bookstore are devoted to parents who just want their kids to be happy. She goes on to say:
Happiness and self-confidence can be the by-products of other things, but they cannot really be goals unto themselves. 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. [Emphasis mine]
The first time I held [my son after he was born], I whispered in his ear, “I will try so hard not to hurt you.” It was the Hippocratic Oath and I didn’t even know I was saying it. It occurs to me now that the Hippocratic Oath is a much more realistic aim than happiness. In fact, as any parent will tell you, it’s awfully hard. All of us have said or done hurtful things that we wish to god we could take back.
I’m not really sure how to create new norms, but I do think in our desperate quest to create happy kids, we may be assuming the wrong moral burden. It strikes me as a better goal, and dare I say, a more virtuous one, to focus on making productive kids and moral kids and to simply hope that happiness will come to them by virtue of the good that they do and their accomplishments, and the love that they feel from us.
Does coping relate to happiness or at least its pursuit? When we are faced with a difficult experience, task or relationship, we are probably not feeling happy as we begin to cope with the situation. However, coping well—responding effectively—does produce feelings of satisfaction that we may experience as happiness because we figured something out. We emerged with increased capacity for coping, plus more self confidence and resilience.
We also should remember, both when we’re feeling unhappy—and especially when our children are feeling unhappy—that the pain of unhappiness is a huge motivation to change our circumstances, our behaviors, and our ways of thinking. We don’t tend to voluntarily make changes in our lives when we’re feeling good. Change always brings uncertainty, so it feels risky. Why purposely do something scary, if everything feels fine?
When I worked at The Clearwater School, adult staff didn’t leap to find activities or solutions to soothe students who felt bored, frustrated, sad, or disappointed with themselves. Those unhappy feelings are incredibly valuable, because discomfort is the stimulus that pushes people to examine their experience, create different responses, and act in new ways. Even when new responses don’t result in something better right away, trying things leads to greater knowledge about ourselves and helps us be clearer about where we need to be at any particular point in our lives.
While we all experience the hurting, the floundering, and the seeking, the specifics of the process are unique to each one of us. If someone jumps in and distracts us to try to make us happy, that person may feel happier, but our own learning is short-circuited and delayed.It’s important to remember that the struggle is precious*. The best thing we can do—for ourselves, our children, and our friends—is to honor and trust the human capacity to struggle and emerge stronger, more resilient, and more self-aware.
Other eras and cultures often asked other questions than the ones we ask now: What is the most meaningful thing you can do with your life? What is your contribution to the world or your community? Do you live according to your principles? What will your legacy be? What does your life mean? Maybe our obsession with happiness is a way not to ask those other questions, a way to ignore how spacious our lives can be, how effective our work can be, and how far-reaching our love can be. There is a paradox at the heart of the happiness question. Todd Kashdan, a psychology professor at George Mason University, reported a few years ago on studies that concluded that people who think being happy is important are more likely to become depressed: “Organizing your life around trying to become happier, making happiness the primary objective of life, gets in the way of actually becoming happy.”
She went on to write this potent piece of wisdom: “…addressing our own suffering, while learning not to inflict it on others, is part of the work we’re all here to do [emphasis mine].” It strikes me that much of the expectation of happiness and achievement we have for our children is a reflection of our own pain and desire to escape from it. We get trapped in the notion that if our children are happy, then we, too, can be happy. It becomes an obsession, a form of suffering, that we inflict on our children by making it our job to make them happy.
In the November 2015 issue of Shambhala Sun: “How to Raise an Emotionally Resilient Child,” author Krissy Pozatek said:
Children’s happiness has become the primary project in our parenting culture today. … Instead of happiness, I believe our parenting goal should be emotional health. Emotional health means that we can be with all of our emotions without reactivity. When parents steer children toward happiness, we are on some level indicating that other emotions are not okay. Though not intentional, this disrupts children’s natural ability to feel the normal spectrum of human emotions, which inevitably includes anger, anxiety, embarrassment, fear, and so on.
Children who have the experience time after time of feeling unhappy and finding their own way through it, learn not to fear and avoid unhappiness. They develop coping strategies and a deep belief that, even though the solution is not visible right now, they have what it takes within themselves to figure it out.+ As long as parents and other adults are available to listen, commiserate, and offer unwavering belief in their child’s creativity and inner strength, children will find solutions for themselves that are satisfying and true. That new knowledge will inform and support the child when the next challenge presents itself, and change and growth are required once again.
*This post assumes that supportive structures, in the form of healthy family, community and social connections, are available to children. There are sadly far too many children (and adults) who do not have these supportive structures available to them, and we are all culpable for creating and sustaining what can only be described as systemic violence.
+There are instances when children (and adults) really are stuck and feel so defeated that they become severely depressed or self-destructive. In these instances, I urge you to find help from someone who has relevant expertise.