The Pursuit of Happiness

An article The Atlantic by Lori Gottlieb a while back discussed how parental obsession with a child’s happiness can make the child into an unhappy adult.

Parents want to do the right thing.  We try to keep kids safe. We want them to feel loved. We long for them to be successful. We hope they will grow into happy productive adults. But how do we do that? It turns out that’s a harder question than we might imagine.

When we grew up, our parents were pretty much focused on discipline. Over the last decade or so there has been a focus on so-called “self-esteem,” which has included an aversion to competition, criticism and correction in favor of praise, promotion and potential. We want our kids to be happy. However, Gottlieb quotes Barry Schwartz, professor at Swarthmore College, who notes, “Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing. But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.”

Our Discomfort With Discomfort

Dan Kindlon, child psychologist and lecturer at Harvard, who Gottlieb quoted in her article, refers to our “discomfort with discomfort.” He says if kids can’t experience painful feelings they won’t develop “psychological immunity.” As a result they won’t know how to deal with not getting the starring role, being cut from the team, or receiving criticism on a class paper. Faculty and administrators are spending quite a bit of time responding to parental involvement in what should be a student’s responsibility to study hard, be prepared, and, on limited occasions, raise warranted concerns on his or her own behalf.

The Adult Journey

In the adult world, everyone does not get a trophy. Everyone is not super at everything. The world of the adult, while full of possibility and reward, is also rife with uncertainty, frustration and disappointment. Certainly, we need to love and encourage our children, but we need also to prepare them for the future. When we rush in to protect our kids from a bruised knee, a failed tryout, a broken relationship or a less than stellar research paper, we may do so out of love and concern. However, our involvement often complicates their ability to handle things on their own and weakens their belief in their own personal resources.

Kids develop self esteem by tackling challenges, recovering from uncertainty and striving to do well. They build self-esteem by overcoming adversity. Parents stunt their child’s growth and development by lowering those hurdles and expectations.

All kids are not good at all things. All kids are good at something. Our job as parents is to help our children identify those things at which they excel and help provide the resources for them to be successful.

As Gottlieb states, “We can try to protect them from nasty classmates and bad grades and all kinds of rejection and their own limitations, but eventually they will bump up against these things anyway. In fact, by trying so hard to provide the perfectly happy childhood, we’re just making it harder for our kids to actually grow up.”


By dads2dads