Saturday, July 08, 2006

I Want my Child to be...

...happy!!! Ask any parent what they want for their children, and they will almost certainly include, they may even start with, "happy". Brace yourselves: Mary's about to go all counter-cultural again. After years of watching families and children, I don't think happiness is a wise goal. In fact, I don't really see it as a goal at all. Happiness, my friends, is a by-product. It's like those stars in the night sky, the stars which, when you look directly at them, vanish, but when you focus elsewhere, they pop into view. What do I see as better, truly valid goals for one's children? Well, that they be kind, compassionate, considerate people. That they learn that others matter as much as they do. That they learn to treat others with the very respect they, themselves, crave. That they live up to their fullest potential, whatever that potential may be - whether or not it's exactly what mom and dad might have had in mind! That they have solid self-esteem (which is NOT brute egotism). If your child is all those things, odds are good he or she will be happy much of the time. Not all the time; happiness is fleeting, after all. Petty irritations, fatigue, disappointments - all these can reduce or remove your feeling of "happiness". It will come back, of course, but if happiness is a goal, if happiness is something that you feel you have a right to, then every time you're not at the peak of happiness, you will feel dissatisfied, robbed, that life is not dealing properly with you. If your goal is to be the best person you can be, then, when happiness recedes temporarily, you will be able to ride the low point - without the additional burden of a feeling of personal begrudgement! If your goal for your child is his/her happiness, then every time s/he cries, you will feel failure. If your goal is to mold a strong and giving human being, then when they cry you will feel compassion, of course (or exasperation, as the case may be!), but you will know that maturity, like anything worth having, doesn't come easily. There will be tough times, there will be tears and tantrums, along the way. It's life. I am a mother. Of course I want my children to live happy, fulfilling lives. However, I firmly believe they will not achieve that if their lives are merely a mad shallow scramble for happiness. They will achieve that, I hope, by being strong, kind, considerate, resilient and respectful human beings.

Update: This post won Lucinda and MommaK's a "Perfect Post", nominated by Lady M. Thanks!

A Perfect Post
~~~~~~~~~~~~ © 2006, Mary P


Blogger Alli said...

I'm going to have to read this a second time after the coffee kicks in, but you make a valid point. When I talk about what I want for Maya, I usually say "happy and well-adjusted." Perhaps the well-adjusted part covers this territory, perhaps not. I do know that I allow her to be angry and try to respectfully recognize her emotions (all of them), even when she's fighting my will for bedtime, diaper changes, etc.

Lots to ponder -- I may link this one from the non-baby site.

7/08/2006 09:49:00 a.m.  
Blogger Lady M said...

Oooh, good food for thought. Like Alli, I'm going to have to ponder this one. When Q was really little and not capable of doing much but grinning, I used to coo adoringly, "You are so cute! " a lot. Eventually, to keep myself from feeling like I was too focused on looks, I'd add, "but it's not enough to be cute. You have to work hard and be kind too" only half-jokingly.

7/08/2006 10:25:00 a.m.  
Blogger kittenpie said...

I think people say "happy" without thinking about how that would be achieved. I hope they mean that they want their child to be strong, resilient, self-reliant, loving, open to experience, curious, thoughtful, and secure and that from those things will grow happiness. Because you are right - and I do believe parents want for their children the kind of deeper happiness that you are talking about.

7/08/2006 10:38:00 a.m.  
Blogger bubandpie said...

Oh, well said! I've often thought of this principle (the happiness as by-product) in relation to myself, but I don't know if I've fully applied it to my parenting. Probably because my children's happiness is like some kind of extra-potent crack - it delivers pure nirvana. But that doesn't mean it's always good for me (or them).

7/08/2006 02:50:00 p.m.  
Blogger lara said...

my mom definitely fell into the "i want you to be happy!" category of parents, and it had its good moments and bad. i liked that i never felt pressured by her to do any one thing in particular, because she wanted me to find what was best for me. i also felt that she often modeled appropriate behavior for how to go about achieving happiness (ie, being compassionate and respectful with others), instead of just saying, "be happy," and leaving the rest open.

however, because i knew this was her goal, i had troubles when i wasn't happy. and unlike the examples you use, of feeling like life is treating me unfairly or something like that, i felt more like i was letting my mom down: "all she wanted was for me to be happy, and now, just because i'm having some problems in my life, i'm failing at that - why can't i handle this better?" it took a long time to understand that it's okay not to be happy all the time - as long as i'm doing my best to live a good life, happiness will be a common visitor.

7/08/2006 03:15:00 p.m.  
Blogger Granny said...

Wonderful post and I agree with every word.

7/08/2006 10:03:00 p.m.  
Anonymous MIM said...

Feelings are complex and, I think, are best experienced in relation to other emotions. When a child experiences, recognizes, and eventually understands how to manage "negative" feelings like frustration, sadness, and disappointment, then they grow up appreciating the feeling of happiness. They also learn how to make themselves happy rather than expecting others to do it for them.

Great post, Mary!

7/08/2006 10:39:00 p.m.  
Blogger LoryKC said...

This is wonderful.

7/09/2006 10:29:00 a.m.  
Blogger J's Mommy said...

I think those are wonderful goals for children. I agree one hundred percent.

7/09/2006 02:12:00 p.m.  
Blogger Jenorama said...

Oh, I really loved this post. I am going to write about it for Blogging Baby.

7/09/2006 10:41:00 p.m.  
Blogger sunshine scribe said...

I like the way you put this. It makes good sense. It really, really does!

7/10/2006 06:52:00 a.m.  
Blogger Michelle said...

That is a really great post. I think all parents feel this way and would agree with what you have said.

7/10/2006 08:21:00 a.m.  
Blogger Juggling Mother said...

I think you hit it in your last paragraph. I want my kids to be fulfilled. If they feel fulfilled, they will be happy. If they understand the concept of fulfilled, they will have useful, constructive & caring professions (who can honestly say they are "fulfilled" by playing the futures markets?). If they are fulfilled, they will feel at ease with themselves as a person, and others will see them as good, honest people.

It's also what i worry about most, is them becomming disillusioned or cynical while young, and therefore not ;looking for, or not having the opportunity to find fulfillment. "happy" is such a non-term. Fulfilled says it better:-)

7/10/2006 10:54:00 a.m.  
Blogger Kristen said...

What a great point. I think people just say out of default that they want their kids to be happy, because they don't know a better way to articulate all of the complexity wrapped up in a good life.

7/10/2006 12:12:00 p.m.  
Anonymous Jennifer said...

So wonderfully well put, Mary! Thank you for putting it all in perspective and hitting the nail right on the head. After having had my own mother visit with us for over a week I spent many moments trying to explain to her that it was alright for Jordan to go through various feelings (aside from happiness) during the day. She caved in to EVERYTHING he demanded bc she wanted him "to be happy". And now that she's gone back home my hubby and I are left doing damage control. Thus, all he really learned was that he can get anything and everything with Nana, and that earning something just isn't worth its weight in gold.

I'm going to send her a copy of this post.

7/10/2006 06:10:00 p.m.  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been thinking along these lines over the last few weeks. My son just turned 1 yesterday. Anyway, when he was an infant, I did just want him to be happy, because I was the one who was supposed to be meeting his needs (for love, security, food, cleanliness, etc.), but now we're reaching the point where that doesn't cut it anymore. Now, it's about teaching him to be self-sufficient and capable of handling whatever life throws at him. And it's about him becoming a good person and establishing good relationships. Great post.

7/10/2006 06:29:00 p.m.  
Blogger Jenny said...

Hi, I found you through Blogging Baby. I agree with most of your post, but I don't take people who say "I want my child to be happy" quite that literally. I might use that phrase, and what I mean is "I want my children to avoid the strong family history of depression." I wouldn't have ever defined "happiness" as "avoiding crying or setbacks." I'd define it as "able to deal with one's emotions and feel joy." I don't take the ability to feel joy as a given; too many people close to me have spent time in their life without it. I also don't think they got depressed because they felt entitled to a lifetime of happiness; depression is more complex than that.

I read a book a while back called "The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness" which argues that children need "to feel connected, to play, to practice, attain mastery and receive recognition" (per the summary on Amazon). It also doesn't define happiness as non-stop fun. It was a good read.

7/10/2006 06:33:00 p.m.  
Blogger Her Bad Mother said...

All of it, yes. But that last paragraph? Yes yes yes.

7/10/2006 08:12:00 p.m.  
Blogger Mary P. said...

Alli: I think "happy and well-adjusted" covers it nicely. I think happiness comes from other things. I think if you seek it directly, you are less likely to find it than if it comes as a result of giving, constructive, positive actions and choices.

LadyM: They just ARE so cute, aren't they? "Cute" can mean other things beyond just looks, of course, and it's always good to have the character goals in mind, because it is character that gets you through the tough spots.

Kittenpie, Kristen: I think you're right. Parents say this without thinking how it will be achieved. The problem arises - and not everyone does this - when happiness is defined as never having a sad moment, and equated with constant smiling. Children do cry, they do get sad, and they need to learn to accept and deal with this, too.

Bub and Pie: children's happiness is like some kind of extra-potent crack - it delivers pure nirvana. Isn't it, though? Love this line!

Kari: You raise a point I hadn't considered: that the parents' desire their child be happy can become a burden to the child when they aren't! Of course, the statement "I just want you to be happy" is designed to take the pressure off, telling you that it doesn't matter if you make lots of money or have the prestigious career, as long as you're happy in what you do. Ironically, what can happen - as did with you - was that instead of protecting you against a sense of failure, it created one on your down times.

As long as i'm doing my best to live a good life, happiness will be a common visitor. I couldn't agree more!

Granny, Lory, Sunshine, J's Mommy, Michelle, Jenorama, HBMother: Thank you! (And Michelle? Welcome! I don't think I've seen a comment from you before. Glad you dropped by and spoke up!)

MiM: Emotions are best experienced in relation to each other. Great point! Joy is more poignant when we know what sorrow is; contentment is savoured fully when we've experienced frustration and unfulfilled desire. Such smart readers I have!

Juggling Mother: Ah, that youthful cynicism thing. I have sooo little patience for it! I've written about it before, seeing it as a cheap substitute for wisdom and true insight. Teens and children? They haven't earned the right to cynicism yet! Pity is, it's trendy to be cynical these days, and you're right: it's such a detraction from their experience of life!

Jennifer: If you cave in to everything to keep a child happy, eventually you create a child who is so used to being catered to that nothing is ever good enough - and they are less happy as a result!

But I don't want to create intergenerational conflict, here! :-) A little spoiling for a few days here and there won't damage his character, though I understand the 48 hours of fall-out is a pain!

Anonymous: The younger the child, the more straightforward their needs! No arguing that! As they get older, parenting becomes more layered, more nuanced - more complicated, yes, but more interesting, too! Good luck!

Jenny: Hello, and Welcome! I agree totally with your definition of happiness - "not avoiding crying or setbacks, but being able to deal with one's emotions and feel joy". If this was everyone's definition of happiness, my post would be unnecessary.

As Jennifer noted, above, though, not everyone does. Some parents truly believe that it is wrong for their children to cry or be sad, ever. What a burden - for the parents, and, as Kari noted, even for the child!

(My husband's family has a strong history of depression, too, so I've seen close up how that can affect your hopes and fears for your children.)

7/11/2006 08:17:00 a.m.  
Blogger Andie D. said...

Oh Mary I'm late in this game again.

But really, fantastic post. "Happiness, my friends, is a by-product."

I too have said that all I want is for my kids to be happy. What I didn't articulate was that I wanted them to feel fulfilled, loved, challenged, stimulated, encouraged, etc.

7/12/2006 11:48:00 p.m.  
Blogger Crazy MomCat said...

A very thought-provoking post. I'm glad I stopped by. And, congrats on your Perfect Post award!

8/01/2006 04:13:00 p.m.  
Anonymous Mother said...

Okay. I think I love you.

And resilience. That is an amazing trait.

Thanks for this.

8/03/2006 11:47:00 p.m.  

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