It's become almost a cultural mantra. Ask parents what they want for their children and the answer is almost universally the same: I just want them to be happy. For most of us it begins even before our children are born. How many times have you heard expectant parents say they don't care whether the baby is a boy or a girl as long as it's happy and healthy? Hoping for a healthy child is reasonable but some experts say you should re-think your pledge for your child's total happiness. Apparently, it's overrated.
Is happiness harmful? It seems ridiculous to consider the idea. After all, none of us want our children to struggle with friendships or have to deal with the other difficulties of life. Isn't it our job to make sure they don't have to deal with these troublesome things? Not according to Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of I Just Want My Kids To Be Happy: Why You Shouldn’t Say It, Why You Shouldn’t Think It, What You Should Embrace Instead. He says that the obsession with making sure our kids are happy is creating generations of non-resilient children who don't know how to deal with adversity.
Looked at a little differently, that happiness-obsession could be what child psychiatrist Alvin Rosenfeld, Ph.D., author of The Over-Scheduled Child: Avoiding the Hyper-parenting Trap, refers to as "competitive" or "hyper" parenting; the need to have your child do everything and do it well, sacrificing whatever you have to in order to make sure they don't encounter failure. Rosenfeld puts the unspoken--and untrue--promise of this force into words: "Make all the right moves and your child will get into a top name university which will guarantee a successful life." Unfortunately, both Cooper and Rosenfeld say not only isn't this a guarantee, but trying to guarantee your child's happiness has unspoken consequences as well.
"Facing and coping with the ordinary adversities of childhood--falling off the bike when learning to ride two-wheelers, a best friend dropping you, not getting the part in the school play--are the ways we develop resilience," explains Cooper. "But if parents are shielding their kids from adversities, as many happiness-obsessed parents do, trying to thwart anything or anyone that might get in the way of their kids' happiness, the kids don't have the practice and don't develop resilience."
Those non-resilient kids often have difficulty adjusting to the real world when it comes time to leave home and are at risk for escapist behaviors, like drug and alcohol abuse, when faced with feelings of unhappiness. We need to teach our children how to recognize and handle the tough feelings--sadness, disappointment, hurt, confusion--instead of always trying to make things better for them.
So, if we're not supposed to live by the cultural mantra, what should we do instead? According to Cooper, it's a matter of instilling in your children values that can bring them true happiness as they grow. He talks about this as "planting seeds" and outlines eight seeds to plant:
- Teach good mental and physical health. Teach children healthy eating, sleeping, and exercise habits and model good mental health by talking about feelings, both happy and unhappy.
- Promote a life of meaning. It's important for children to learn that there's a purpose in life beyond their own needs. Cooper suggests talking to children about your heroes and introducing them to community service projects.
- Encourage closeness. Show children the value of friendships by spending time with your friends and those of your children.
- Value acts of loving kindness. Practice altruism and help your kids learn the joys of giving of themselves to others.
- Impart gratitude. Teach children to be grateful for what they have by commenting on all on the good things about your life, even when things are rough.
- Imbue spirituality. Talk about the non-material things you admire about others, participate in rituals, and try to answer the tough questions about life, no matter how hard they are.
- Model optimism. Face life with a "can-do" attitude and help your kids to learn to embrace the good that change can bring.
- Nurture gratifying pursuits. Help your children find something they love to do which highlights their strengths.
Is happiness overrated? Not if it's genuine and long-lasting. So try replacing that mantra with other thoughts. How about: I just want my kids to have a meaningful life, with good health, and strong relationships?