“Happiness is overrated. Get a job.”

You can get a lot of interesting advice on how to raise children via Facebook memes.  I’ll admit it, I’ve posted a few dozen hundreds on my own Facebook wall, platitudes that appear innocuous as we scroll through our New Feeds, liking or sharing with only a few moments’ thought about the message.  Many reflect cultural ideals of Western society and are taken as a given.  But looking back at a few that my friends and I have shared over the years, I came to realize that they are sentiments shared by many parents- parents who are well meaning and wanting the best for their children.  The messages sound good in theory but what do they mean in practice? I’ve heard many of these ideals shared over and over, both in speaking to other moms and in my work with parents.  I’ve shared these beliefs myself.  But when I sat down to analyze them, I realized that these seemingly harmless and good intentioned beliefs may actually be getting us results contrary to what is best for our kids.

I just want my child to be happy.”  Sounds like great advice, right?  What parent doesn’t want that?  Of course we want our children to be happy. Except that happiness, as a state of being, is by its nature transient.  And as humans, when we experience something for an extended period of time, we become habituated.  If we teach our children to strive merely for happiness, we are setting them up for failure.  Happiness is also one of those emotions that is magnified by contrast.  If I have a million dollars and I win $100,000, I will be happy, but not in the same way that I would be if I were struggling to pay my mortgage and won 100k, right?  Sometimes, you need a little struggle or moments of discontent to fully appreciate what you have.  Instead of wanting my child to “just be happy”, I want her to experience the fullness of her emotions- moments of joy, elation, happiness, boredom, frustration, sadness, anger- all normal emotions to the human condition- and to be able to acknowledge them, embrace the moment that has created the feeling, and continue on having learned from the experience.  I don’t want to teach her to strive for a feeling that is fleeting.  And yes, while overall I’d like her to be happy, I wouldn’t promote it as one’s primary aim.  Happiness should be the result of a well lived life, not the goal.  Because if she’s striving for mere happiness, then how will she feel when she experiences periods that are don’t meet this ideal? She will likely feel as if she’s failed, even when she hasn’t.  And I will have failed her by setting a standard that is by its very nature unachievable. Besides, I don’t want to end up in this situation when Miss Fancy Pants is 30:

MFP:  I quit my job and am moving back home.

Me:  Why?!

MFP:  Because my job doesn’t make me happy.  And you said all you wanted was for me to be HAAAAAPPYYYYY!

Me:  Happiness is overrated.  Get a job.

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It’s not our job to toughen up our children…”  I agree with this to an extent.  I want to teach my child to help make the world a kinder place.  And if we all strived for that goal, we’d be a lot closer to achieving a better existence for all of humanity.  But reality is, the world is sometimes cruel and heartless, and I don’t want to raise a child so sensitive and sheltered as to be crushed and made immobilized when life is unfair or others act in wicked ways.  I want her to be empathetic, kind, sensitive, AND “tough”, which by definition means to be able to withstand difficult conditions.  I want her to be the kid who stands up for herself when bullied and the one who speaks up when she sees others being treated unkindly.  I want her to dust herself off when she fails and keep trying until she succeeds.  I want her to challenge those in power who abuse their authority.  I want her to be able to dismiss unjust words from others, recognize that her self-worth is not defined by those who may taunt or discourage her, and to persevere despite wickedness.  I want her to be resilient.

You shouldn’t care about what others think.”  Yes and no.  If the other person is being unreasonable, judgmental, doesn’t have the whole picture, or is just being a plain old jerk, it’s true, you shouldn’t care about what they think or at least, you shouldn’t let their opinion to force you to change your behavior if you’re acting justly.  Besides, there are some people that will judge you no matter what you do, just because of their own inherent prejudices and negativity. It’s not worth your worry to dwell on what they think.  However, there are times when we should absolutely care what others think.  If our actions hurt or are unfair to others, maybe we should be spending a bit more time thinking about what we do or say and consider how others feel about our behavior.  I hope I will do a good job helping my daughter to distinguish between two, erring on the side of caring while being “tough” enough not to let others’ (unfounded) opinions prevent her from living an authentic life.

I want my child to have high self-esteem.”  By now, it’s well documented (Baumeister, Campbell, Krueger, & Vohs, 2003) that the self-esteem movement of the 70’s and 80’, which included indiscriminate praise and reward) failed to produce the desired effects of making children get along better with others, obey the law, improve school performance, delay sexual activity, reduce rates of drug use, improve social skills, or reduce rates of aggression.  In fact, people with high self-esteem tend to be more narcissistic (self-centered, with big, swollen egos) and have a tendency to inaccurately rate their abilities and/or their negative impact upon others.  I can recall a former acquaintance who spoke frequently about his high self-esteem.  And while he was bright, successful, and competent at his job, he often put his needs before the needs of others.  He was helpful when it suited his desires or increased his social standing, but neglected friendships and colleagues when it didn’t benefit him.  He often bragged about his ability, turning off others, rather than letting his achievements stand on their own merits. Certainly low self-esteem, with it’s correlation to depression, is no better; rather, accurate self-esteem appears to be the most desirable goal.  Instead of praising children for everything little thing that they do, giving them trophies for mere participation (except for the littlest ones), banning teachers from passing out failing grades, etc., children need realistic feedback about their performance.  Not shaming or harping on weaknesses, but offering praise when they achieve difficult (relatively speaking) tasks, while taking advantage of teachable moments when children miss the mark.

If it sounds like I might be hard-nosed on my kid, let me assure you, she gets loved up and down all day long.  I would never purposefully do something to damage her self-esteem or ignore her need for love and approval.  Kids need unconditional love from their parents.  But I do want to give her the skills necessary to navigate a difficult world, teach her how to deflect unjust criticism, and help her to recognize the impact of her deeds and words upon others.  I don’t want to set her up for disappointment by making her think that life is always fair or that a perpetual state of happiness is achievable, but I do want to show her the importance of being grateful for the good in her life and to search for the good even in unpleasant circumstances.  These are lessons that I still strive to learn and incorporate into my own life.

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Reference

Baumeister, R. F., Campbell, J. D., Krueger, J. I., & Vohs, K. D. (2003). Does high self-esteem cause better performance, interpersonal success, happiness, or healthier lifestyles? Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 4, 1-44.

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