How often have you said, or listened to another mom or dad say, “I just want my kids to be happy.” I call bull shit. Saying this makes us sound like good parents, right? If we just want our children to be happy, then we must have our eye on the ball, our priorities in check and our values locked in tight. We say it because it sounds good and in any given moment, of course we want our kids to have a smile on their faces. But, we do not just want them to be happy. If we did, we would let them eat chocolate all day, opt for video games over homework and follow rules when they feel like it.
Happy — what does that even mean and when did a single emotion become a goal? It is as if our generation of parents, realizing we are overbearing, living vicariously and peerenting to the extreme, needed a catch phrase to soften the crazy. The hypocrisy in saying our children’s happiness is the most important thing to us, is laughable. We sign them up for hours of extra-curricular activities, scream at them during games, stress at their performances, and pay for extra help to ensure they are “living up to their potential.” We scrutinize their grades, their teachers, their tutors and their standardized exams in an attempt to get the best university’s bumper sticker on our rear window. We engineer their social lives, “like” their posts on social media, and intervene when they encounter even the slightest bump in the road. We may be doing what we think is best, but it is pretty safe to say, happy is not our only motivator.
Our best studies show “happiness” is based on strong personal relationships, meaningful work, a sense of gratitude, positive thinking and the ability to forgive. I can dissect each of these and look at the way our brand of parenting is sabotaging them — for the sake of brevity, I won’t, but I could. So could you. Deep down, we may want these things for our children, but our actions and our examples are not making it easy for our kids to achieve them.
When you really think about it, doesn’t it sound trite and superficial to say we just want them to be happy? Maybe the problem is with the word itself. Having just one word to describe something both so shallow and deep is confusing and limiting. “I am so happy Julia got voted off the island,” does not compare to, “I am so happy with my marriage, my children and my career.” In some languages, there are dozens of words for love. Why have only one for happy? In our best, truest moments as parents, when we are unselfish, the type of happy we want for our kids is the kind they will only be able to find on their own. It is the happy only found by a life well lived, full of love, compassion and purpose. But, in our other moments, the ones clouded by fear, competitiveness, guilt and inadequacy, we want different things for our kids. We want them to get into great colleges, we want them to score the winning goal, we want them to be popular — we want them to make us look good. We want them to make us happy. In this aggressive pursuit of “happy”, it seems we are generating a whole lot of stress, anxiety, dysfunction and UNhappiness. Maybe we should take the focus off being happy. (The more times I write it, the more ridiculous it sounds. Say it ten times fast and you will feel like an idiot.) It is a lot of pressure, and an exercise in futility, on both parents and kids to set a feeling as a goal. If we, and they, aren’t skipping through life, have we failed?
My 14 year old daughter shared this quote with me the other day. It is the reason I write this today. She says it is one of her favorites, and she has it highlighted and bookmarked. I imagine this moved her because it de-emphasizes the importance of evasive, emotionally driven, fleeting happiness, and puts the emphasis back where it belongs — on living a meaningful life. We can learn a lot from our kids.
"I cannot believe the purpose of life is to be happy. I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all." — Leo Rosten