Can We Make Our Children Happy?

Teacher standing with studentsAn elementary school principal discussed with me an important issue in parenting. The context was her concern with parents who ask their children each year who they would like to have for a teacher next year and then, not only request that teacher, but also put pressure on the administration to see that it happens, rather than letting things take their natural course. We parents have to watch that we don’t let our children take the lead in the relationship. Children get the idea that all they have to do is ask and mom and dad will take care of it for them. It isn’t good for them to always get what they want. Children will encounter a variety of people throughout life and need to learn to get along in whatever situation they find themselves. It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to enable our children by not allowing them to work out situations that come up in life. It is a misconception that it is our job to make them happy.

One of my mentors, Dr. Steven A. Maybell, has written a wonderful article on this very subject—“Can We Make Our Children Happy?” I would like to share with you what he says, because it is very pertinent as I see parents in our society misguidedly paving the way for their children. Steve’s writes:

The most important task any of us could have is the task of parenting our children. Yet this is the one task where mandatory education or licensing is not required—and children do not come with an owner’s manual!
How do we learn how to parent? The reality is that we learn from our own parents and from the so-called ‘experts.’ Since the middle of the century, these experts have legitimately been warning us that coercive and punitive approaches to parenting damages a child’s self-esteem and is therefore undesirable. However, they have also educated us to believe that we must not do anything to our children that might make them unhappy or uncomfortable, and that by doing so we diminish the child’s sense of personal worth. Our job, they insist, is to assure that our children are always happy, always comfortable.

Based on my years of experience as a parent, parent educator and family counselor, I am convinced that we have all been deceived. The ‘experts’ formula, that happiness + comfort = self-esteem does not add up.

How is self-esteem developed? Where does it come from? The answer is in the term. Self-esteem can only come from ourselves, from a belief in ourselves and our own ability and competence. The belief in ourselves, our sense of self-sufficiency is only derived by having the opportunity to handle things ourselves. To be given the responsibility to manage a new task, a new territory. The formula above directly subtracts from this process. Parents who see it as their job to make their children happy help foster dependency, which is the exact opposite of self-sufficiency and self-esteem. Parents who strive to make their children comfortable deny their children the opportunity to take on a new challenge, which will naturally be uncomfortable.

For a child with self-esteem, when a new challenge arises he/she thinks, ‘This is a challenge, a problem, and I have a good person to rely upon: me.’ Whereas the dependent child thinks: ‘Where is the person who can solve this problem for me?’

Self-sufficiency and self-esteem can be fostered in very specific ways. For example:
1. Giving a young child the experience of sleeping in his/her own bed.
2. Handing the responsibility for school performance and school problems to our children (while staying interested in the learning process, and making ourselves available as consultants.)
3. Teaching our children to do their own laundry and then handing this task over to them.
4. Giving our children in their early teen years the responsibility of choosing and managing their own bedtime.

An interesting life paradox is that by trying to make our children happy and comfortable, we are sure of adding to their discomfort and misery as they face life as a dependent person. By allowing them the opportunity to take on more and more life responsibilities with every passing year, which will include some unhappiness and discomfort, we are giving them the greatest gift imaginable: the gift of self-esteem.

In my experience, the dependency seems to occur most often with the youngest child in the family. We have to watch that we don’t baby the baby.

In addition, I want also to say that we are each responsible for our own happiness in life, as no other person can make us happy. It’s a myth that our partner or spouse, in particular can do that—as well as parents for their children. I recommend a good book entitled Happiness is an Inside Job by Father John Powell for this kind of inner exploration.

© Copyright 2010 by Jackie Pearson. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • holly

    holly

    August 31st, 2010 at 4:37 AM

    Yes you can make your kids happy!! Tell them how wonderful and special and loved that they are. Then their self esteem will grow from this. If you ignore that factor or are constantly beating them down then of course they won’t be happy. They will not feel like you believe in them so how could they possibly believe in themselves? Sel esteem does come from within but I strongly believe that this is something that is created and nurtured through the family and the parents from a very early age. The children will then just continue to believe what they have been told and shown throughout the years.

  • Norman

    Norman

    August 31st, 2010 at 4:49 AM

    there’s no doubt that all of us want our children to be happy and we try and provide them with whatever they wish for.it is normal for any parent to provide what a child wants.its their love for them and love knows no bounds.its fine if parents go the extra mile to make their children happy after all.

  • VD

    VD

    August 31st, 2010 at 9:36 AM

    @Norman:I agree that it is the parents’ love that drives them to gain anything and provide to their kids but this love should not come in the way of individual growth of the child,should it?The parents need to understand that the child is going to encounter all kinds of people in life and hence will have to deal with all kinds of things-both positive and negative.

  • Jackie Pearson LMFT

    Jackie Pearson LMFT

    September 2nd, 2010 at 8:45 PM

    Of course we want to tell our children how much we love and value them. That’s pretty basic to good parenting, isn’t it? I think some missed the point of the article–that parents who focus on paving the way in life for their children and indulging them by providing everything they want, rob their children of opportunities to learn how to grow and mature as people who will be self-confident and self-disciplined. Thanks, VD for your comments. You got it!

    Two of the greatest gifts we can give our children are problem solving skills and the ability to delay gratification. These are life-long attributes that we all need. If we want our children to be comfortable and remove situations where they can learn these important skills, it is possible to take away their ability to deal with the bumps in the road that will arise and enable them to be dependent on others. People who struggle through life don’t have the ability to take care of themselves, but expect others to make them happy and fall into a victim stance, as if they have no ability to affect their lives themselves.

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