“I just want my kids to be happy” is one of the biggest parenting pitfalls we can slip into. Lots of things make kids happy. No rules and late nights watching Disney Junior make them happy. Same goes for a mountain of Skittles dropped into a tub of caramel popcorn, or being set loose in a toy shop with sticky fingers and a hammer… and I’m not about to do any of that.
My ultimate objective as a parent is not to make my kids happy, it’s to see them fulfilled. Happiness will be an occasional side effect. Happiness is a fickle bastard and constant happiness is just as numbing as none at all.
When we focus so intently on creating happy kids, we are implicitly teaching them that any time they’re not happy, life is bad.
When they’re sad, we offer them ice cream sundaes to cheer them up. When they’re bored, we buy them toys to distract them. When they’re loud, we plop them in front of the TV to keep them entertained (and quiet).
What we’re teaching them is that a lack of happiness can be fixed with ‘stuff’ that comes from the outside. No one has ever found happiness there.
My job as a parent is not to make my kids happy, it’s to keep them healthy and safe. If I am allowed to want something for them, it’s not going to be happiness. What I want for my kids is to experience love in its waxing and waning phases.
I want them to overcome challenges with intelligence and grace. I want them to adventure through their hearts and minds, uncovering more exquisite treasure within them at every turn. I want them to live in lifelong curiosity, to hunger for knowledge, to thirst for experience.
I want them to be rooted in empathy and compassion for the world around them. I want them to be kind and generous, full of humanity. I want them to want to make a palpable difference in the people whose lives they pass through. I want them to believe in who they are and the power of their tiniest contributions.
I want them to be confident. I want them to meet fear often, and to find courage on occasion, because that means they’re working outside constant comfort and security. I want them to explode with ideas and creativity, to explore, to experiment with whatever they can get their hands and minds on.
I want them to take risks, to fall, to fail, and to learn what it is to stand up again with scrapes on their knees and scars on their hearts. I want them to believe in the healing power of ‘again’ or ‘next time’. I want my kids to be secure enough in themselves to go hunting when they’re hungry and to be big enough to share the catch when they make it.
I want all these things for my kids and most of them don’t come with the irrationality and flightiness of happiness.
These things require effort and time and commitment from me as a parent. They require me to constantly educate myself — first and foremost, about myself. They require me to be the best and most authentic version of me every minute of every day. They require me to read and learn about education, nutrition, psychology, the brain, candy making, costume jewelry, dinosaur species… whatever matters at that moment.
They require me to explore my own fears and limitations and beliefs. They require me to create space for them to be themselves. They require me to be understanding of their differences and their quirks. They require me to problem-solve on the spot when they come running to me in tears.
They require me to step back when they have their own battles to fight, when they have their own wounds to heal. They require me to have endless compassion, to rain love and understanding and acceptance on them regardless of whether I have the energy. They require me to say “I don’t know, let’s look it up.”
And sometimes, simply not to know. They require me to ask for help and forgiveness and support and to live with as little guilt as I can possibly survive with.
Parenting is one of the hardest things I have ever tried to do. It is also one of the most soul-wrenching, heart-scoring, mind-bending, love-filling, confidence-scorching, self-esteem-building roles a human could ever play. It is work. A lot of work. Because I want to be the kind of parent — and friend — that my kids will want to be like. I want to know deep in the depths of my secret soul that I gave what knowledge and wisdom and experience I had, went in pursuit of what I didn’t, and lived in peace with what was left in between.
Just wanting our kids to be happy is easy. Teaching how to design lives brimming with meaning, connection, and value is a monumental challenge. We’re still learning how to get there ourselves.
This blog is cross-posted from author Kathy Shalhoub’s website, where she shares insights on parenting, motivation, and enhancing creativity.