I have heard this statement a lot recently in media articles about parents, usually in reference to something a parent feels they have to allow their child to do, or offered as an explanation of their solution to a problem: “I just want my child to be happy. That’s the most important thing for any parent isn’t it? You just want your kids to be happy.” It always seems to come when I’m looking with horror at what a parent is doing, and thinking “No, no, don’t do that!! That is NOT what a child needs!”
I have begun to wait for the inevitable appearance of this phrase in every article I read and it seems to go together with that other recent ubiquitous staple of parenting wisdom: a child can be “whatever they want to be.” When you put these two ideas together you get the parent who tells a little boy he can be a girl, in order to make him happy: the parent occupies the magical thinking world of a child, and the child is put in the role of a wise adult who understands all the future implications of a complex issue. How far are we now prepared to go to “make our child happy”? Do we help a child cope with reality or change reality to fit our child? Articles about parents making such decisions seem to be coming out at the rate of one a week recently, with no ‘parenting experts’ coming out with the advice they are not usually afraid to deliver (where have they all gone? They’re very quiet on this issue).
Whenever a phrase becomes an established mantra, I start to question it, I can’t help it. I remember when I first heard someone say on the News “I just want closure” I thought “that’s a good way of putting it”, but as it became the inevitable conclusion to every devastating news story I heard, I found myself mulling over over the questions it raised about whether “closure” was ever really possible in some cases. “Closure” had become a kind of platitude which perhaps raised expectations for people involved in tragedies and let the rest of us off the hook in terms of ongoing support. A phrase repeated enough times becomes an unchallenged and accepted wisdom which absolves us of the obligation to think. That can be useful sometimes (it’s a short-cut! We don’t have to invent original thoughts every time..) but it can also mean we’re living unconsciously on the borrowed experience of others.
So I find myself pondering this question: do I just want my child to be happy? Has that desire been behind the decisions I have made about my children as they have grown up? Has my children’s happiness always been the most important thing to me? (In case they’re listening: of course it has, kids!)
I certainly know that I have thought this at times when one of my children has been unhappy or distressed, when “I just want you to be happy!” is a feeling that springs up automatically. As it does when a child has been whining and moaning since forever ago, but in this case in a slightly different, gritted-teeth sort of way: “I just want you to be HAPPY, damn it…”
Is it the most important thing though? This is what has been going round in my head. The problem with “happiness” is that it’s elusive, it comes and goes, and what makes you happy now in this moment, is not necessarily conducive to your overall well-being and contentment. We know this, but children don’t because the present moment is all children have (and I include adolescents in this even though they’re older, because their brains develop a whole new instant-reward-and-damn-the-consequences mode of operation). As parents we have to weigh the reward of happiness in the present moment with our knowledge of long-term repercussions; we parent a child with an eye on the future adult they will become.
“I just want my child to be happy” may be an automatic, overall hope for our kids (what parent doesn’t want that, generally?) but bringing it down into everyday life and using it as the most important rationale for our decisions leaves out our adult understanding of the wider perspective which we have a responsibility to use. Enabling instant gratification in the service of a child’s happiness right now is no substitute for consideration of overall learning and growth. Sometimes it’s best to say “no” and take the consequences, or manage our own anxiety and develop confidence in our child’s resilience, supporting them to deal with distressing feelings. Is it our own inability to deal with our child’s unhappiness that we’re protecting really?
When you’re thinking about the Most Important Thing for your kids, “happiness” falls short. I’m reminded of a game my daughter used to play with me (relentlessly, annoyingly…) which consisted of her asking me which of two totally unrelated things I would prefer: “if you had to choose, mummy? If you could ONLY have one of them?” The examples she gave me were all equally impossible to choose between so I can’t remember any of them now. But I learned the game, so I’ll apply it here in a slightly different format: Would you be happy if your child grew up happy but stupid? Happy, but totally self-obsessed? Happy, but cruel? You see where I’m going with this…
There are lots of things I wanted for my children as they were growing up, I hoped that they would be resilient, kind, intelligent, brave, resourceful, self-aware, honest, compassionate, all those kind of things. “Happy” seems such a failure of imagination by comparison, such an unambitious hope for a child.
Children get desperately unhappy about all sorts of issues as they are growing up; the frustration of not being able to make the world work for you in the way you think it should is hard. They learn (eventually) to manage those frustrations but they will hold on to the one that gets results from parents, the issue that triggers the parent’s greatest anxieties and therefore their greatest efforts to “make it right.” Of course no parent wants to see a child in distress but when a child’s happiness resides in the simple relief of getting what they want it becomes the parents’ job to see beyond that and remember the other qualities they hope their child will develop: those personal qualities that will help them navigate their way through life; qualities that will, in fact, give kids the best chance of experiencing this desired state of happiness as adults.