Why making sure they’re happy isn’t our job

by Kristin on June 21, 2011

in Love, family & community

Photo by K. Tennant

Two days ago I took S, my youngest daughter, to camp. She’s 11, which seems like a fine age to go to “sleep-away camp” for the first time, but I still spent the first 24 hours, post-drop-off, worrying and wondering about her.

When I woke up yesterday morning, the thoughts rushed in, filling me like flood waters: Did that thunderstorm that went through last night visit their camp, as well? If so, was it scary to be in a little cabin in a storm? Did she sleep OK? Was she too hot? (I wish I had thought to send a battery-operated fan to clip to her top bunk.) Is S eating enough protein and drinking enough water? Have those really hyper girls in her cabin settled down?

My parenting impulse is perfectly normal—I just want her to enjoy her first camp experience. I want her to be happy.

But yesterday it hit me: I’m being too protective. I’m even worrying about things I have no control over, like the weather! I knew I had to mentally let go of my make-things-better role in her life—at least for this moment—and focus on her strengths and the great growing experience she’s having as she navigates through a variety of situations and interactions on her own.

The challenge of letting kids experience discomfort

I’m beginning to think “letting go” is the most difficult parenting skill of all, so it’s no surprise that this timely subtitle from The Atlantic caught my eye yesterday: “Why the obsession with our kids’ happiness may be dooming them to unhappy adulthoods.”

The author of the article, therapist and mom Lori Gottlieb, writes about how she started seeing lots of 20-something patients who reported having wonderful parents who they adored, yet they felt “empty, confused, and anxious.” Suddenly one day, it occurred to Gottlieb: “Was it possible these parents had done too much?”

Most parents, for generations, have wanted their kids to be happy, but Gottlieb says what defines “happy” has shifted in problematic ways over the years: “The American Dream and the pursuit of happiness have morphed from a quest for general contentment to the idea that you must be happy at all times and in every way.” Another phrase used in the article, which rings true to me, in terms of today’s society, is “a discomfort with discomfort.”

Ah, yes. Like a camp cabin that is too hot and humid? Or cabin mates that are overbearing? Or having to drink well-water that doesn’t taste like home?

Happiness as an experience versus happiness as a goal

The distinction it seems we should take note of, as parents, is this: the difference between celebrating happiness when it comes and making happiness a goal.

“Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing,” Barry Schwartz, a professor of social theory at Swarthmore College, told me. “But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.” It’s precisely this goal, though, that many modern parents focus on obsessively—only to see it backfire. Observing this phenomenon, my colleagues and I began to wonder: Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?

In other words, we have to let our kids experience discomfort and frustration, from time to time. We have to let them problem-solve, practice giving themselves pep-talks, and learn that they are capable of getting up to keep going. Dan Kindlon, a child psychologist and author quoted in the article, says kids “need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle” to build “psychological immunity.”

That gives me a completely different take on this week. I know camp is a good experience for S, just as it was for me when I was her age. I also know it won’t be perfect, and that all of the imperfections are out of my control, and that’s OK. Now I can relax (mostly) and think of it as a week of adventure and learning opportunities for S—and for me, too.

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  • http://www.10minutewriter.com Katharine

    My pastor spoke on that very topic last Sunday. I agree with you. Happiness shouldn’t be the goal at all. At our house, the language we use is “wisdom” or “being wise.” It’s my job, I tell my kids, to teach them to be wise, not foolish, and in this process, there will be a great deal of sacrifice and discomfort and times that aren’t so happy. My 7yo is still pouting that I made him push a tricycle up a hill in front of our house. Didn’t hurt him one bit. ; )

  • Angela Johnson

    Perfect! Oh my, I’m sending my 11YO to camp for the first time this summer too. Yesterday a mom told me she was keeping her son home because last year a storm passed through and scared him. Then I got scared to send my child. But today, I read your post and I breathe. I know you’re right. I’ve preached this ‘sermon’ before. Now time to practice what I preach. Thanks for the encouragement!

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com Jennifer

    This post and its referenced articles leaves a bloom of uncomfortable awareness in the pit of my maternal stomach. I am that woman, and I try every day to not manage every aspect of my kids’ lives. I have one child who causes me more worry than the others, and I have to verbally remind myself to stop, to let go, to let the kid be. It is hard.

    One day, when one of my kids was upset that I’d said no to something, she said, “But I thought you wanted me to be happy!” In a plaintive and obviously manipulative tone.

    I looked at her beautiful face and told her, “I would love for you to be happy, but I’m more interested in your character.”

    She did not like that answer.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Katharine, I love this: “It’s my job, I tell my kids, to teach them to be wise, not foolish, and in this process, there will be a great deal of sacrifice and discomfort and times that aren’t so happy.” Mind if I borrow it for my kids? (I’m curious to know how your pastor worked this idea into a sermon, and what text he/she used.)

    Angela, I have to tell you, I wrote this post yesterday and was feeling all good about the situation, then a really bad storm went through Illinois, huge parts of two trees in our yard fell mere inches from our house, and I went right back to worrying. I guess it’s a process even for the parents, eh? Trust is always a process.

    Jennifer, I know exactly what you’re talking about—that sinking maternal feeling. S is so sensitive and expressive—she feels and communicates things so deeply, which makes it so much harder for me to let go. I know every thought and fear running through her head, turning into worry on her brow. Isn’t it nice, though, when they bring it all to a point like your daughter did? I love your answer: “I would love for you to be happy, but I’m more interested in your character.”

  • Kirstin

    Oh man, I really could have used Jennifer’s line about happiness v. character in this morning’s iteration of the argument I’ve been having all summer with my 12 year old. I’ll hold it in reserve though–I’m sure a suitable occasion will arise!

    I am finding exhausting and difficult to strike the right balance between supporting my kid and letting her go at this stage of her development. I have really found this article helpful in understanding what the balance might look like (equipping my child to achieve happiness as a byproduct, rather than a goal) and in figuring out what makes it so hard (she’s not yet of an age to grasp that distinction in the way that a mature adult does).

    I hope your daughter has a great time at camp, bumps and all!

  • Nicola

    I read that article last week, and sent it to my husband and a few friends. I think we all have things we can take from it in our quest to be balanced parents.

    My daughter is only going into second grade, and I already feel the pressure to enroll her in tons of activities, manage her social life (and popularity?) through endless playdates with a wide range of peers, and constantly strive to provide her with “enrichment” that will augment her education. Really? Is this what parenting is all about?

    I’m resisting the pressure, but occassionally feel judgement from other moms (and from myself!) about my stance. And, I find that I’m questioning my own instincts about the right balance for my child. And she’s only 7!

    I think so much of this comes from our own competitiveness and our need for our kids to be “successful,” whatever that means to us. I’ve noticed that my husband’s hot button issues are around our daughter’s social life/success (he was bullied early in middle school), and mine are more around academic performance (I was a really smart kid who basically tanked in middle and early high school).

    I’m trying very hard to take my cues from my kid – if she wants to sign up for activities and our family calendar can handle it, I can sign her up (within reason). If she is asking for playdates with certain friends repeatedly, I can try to work it out for her. But, we don’t have to drive her in any particular direction. And, I don’t have to manage her success and popularity (and happiness). She will develop as she grows!

    As educated, involved parents, I think the best thing we can do is step back a bit and let our kids experience life without us managing every little thing for them.

  • Pingback: Can our kids be too safe?

  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    This is a great post. I read something that rings similar this week — are playgrounds too safe? It was the same idea, with making playgrounds so safe, children aren’t conquering things that seem scary to them and learning how to cope with minor injuries, which leaves them more emotionally troubled down the road than any broken bone from falling from a jungle gym would have. I guess we’re learning the negative sides of parents being too protective.