Sunday, November 23, 2008

Kids Need More Than 'Happiness'

Parents are trying so hard these days, and so many of them are failing miserably beneath the sheer weight of the "advice" being thrown around about to raise our children. Being "happy" seems like the best we can hope for sometimes.

Kids Need More Than 'Happiness'

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- I just want my kids to be happy.

This has become "a kind of sacred star in the galaxy of parenting wisdom," says child psychologist Aaron Cooper. It is a default dream, what Cooper calls the "fall-back wish" of parents for the lives they'd like their children to live. If kids can't always grow up to be successful, enlightened and benevolent people -- what grandpa referred to as "healthy, wealthy, and wise" -- then at least they can be happy.

As someone who has spent more than three decades working with children and families, Cooper has heard the happiness mantra over and over again.

"Parents come in for a counsel and the child is struggling," he told me recently. "And almost always, the parent says: 'I just want her to be happy, that would be the most important thing.'"

Cooper noticed that the concept would pop up in parent-teacher conferences and open houses at elementary schools. He caught a glimpse of it when television psychologist Dr. Phil, during an appearance on "Larry King Live," asked the interviewer to define his hopes for his children, and King quickly responded: "That they be happy." Cooper also found a study where a group of psychologists traveled the world and asked parents to describe their fondest wish for their children, and the No. 1 answer was -- surprise -- happiness.

"It was assaulting me from every direction," he said. "And it got me thinking: What does this mean? What's the consequence of this concept in our children's lives?"

The search for answers led to Cooper's recent and important book with co-author Eric Keitel, "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."

One of the first things that Cooper wants us to understand is that this idea of obsessing over children's happiness is a new phenomenon. He insists that over the last 50 years, parents have channeled Thomas Jefferson and made "the pursuit of happiness" (for their children) the top parental goal.

"I know that my grandparents would never have said that happiness was most important thing," said Cooper, who is 57. "My parents, I don't think, would have said it either."

Some of this is about the popular and destructive trend of parents-as-best-friends and the fact that -- when their children are feeling blue -- today's parents seem to have such low tolerance that they give into every whim, demand or tantrum.

"A couple of generations ago, parents could tolerate kids being unhappy, being mad at them," Cooper told me.

"They didn't care. The kids would go off and pout for a while but it never occurred to people back then that their children had to be happy all the time."

As to why things have changed, Cooper believes that to some degree, Americans are victims of their own success.

"As a great many families in our country have enjoyed a certain level of comfort and convenience and affluence, life has become a little bit easier in some of the practical ways," he said. "So the wish for parents isn't just for a good job or an education as a means to good job -- the wishes that our grandparents had back then. Now a lot of families and parents take that for granted so the emphasis has shifted to something less practical and less tangible, which is kind of a quality-of-life dimension that they wish for their child."

Cooper insists that the wish for happiness is reinforced through the consumer marketplace, which is selling "shortcuts to happiness ... a certain car, a certain vacation, a certain hair product." Not to mention a pharmaceutical industry that bombards us with television ads to convince us that the road to happiness, or at least the detour around sadness and depression, is by "popping the right pill."

Parenting is the most difficult and important job ever invented. You mess it up and society pays the price. We should give up on trying to make our kids happy and concentrate on raising children with good values, compassionate hearts, a mighty work ethic, respect for others and a willingness to take responsibility for their actions. We should teach them to follow their passion and strive to succeed, but to never forget that we learn a lot from failure. And much of the rest will fall into place.


Tamar Chansky said...

Yes, parents want the best for their children, but we need to re-think what that means. Doing for our children without trusting them to do what they can for themselves is not giving them the best... on the contrary it's subtly reinforcing not only dependency, but a lack of confidence in their own abilities.

This is an issue that I take on in my new book, Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Powerful, Practical Strategies to Build a Lifetime of Resilience, Flexibility and Happiness ( There I help parents see how they can do appropriate "job-sharing" with their kids by asking more questions rather than giving all the answers. Over time kids learn that they can rely on themselves and this is much more reassuring ultimately than waiting for someone to bail them out. Hmmm... sounds like some adults could learn a thing or two about that.

Tamar Chansky, Ph.D.

Anonymous said...

Am I the only parent in the world for whom "happiness" for my child means a great sense of self, resilience, the ability and desire to contribute to society, a well-rounded education in the important things in life, such as sharing, discovering and using their passions and abilites, experiencing all they can (ups AND downs) and learning from those experiences. Surely the majority of parents want this for their child? Not some spoilt monster to be given in to at all times, so the parent is perceived as a friend? Children need boundaries. They need their parents to be parents - they have friends.