Hours after my first child was born, I couldn’t sleep. I held the little bundle of adorableness in my arms and thought, As long as you are happy, nothing else matters. Flash-forward 17 years of parenting, and you know what? Happiness isn’t top of the list for my deepest wants for my kids. Somewhere along the road, I realized that my kids’ happiness is way overrated.
Every day, on Facebook and parenting message boards, I see my fellow moms complaining about how loads of homework and mean teachers are making their kids unhappy. Their kids are bored or stressed or under too much pressure. They aren’t happy, they worry. They need to be happy, they protest.
It seems as though parents nowadays equate happiness as a life devoid of boredom or dissatisfaction. Every activity children engage in, no matter how mundane, should be creatively constructed to engage and enlighten.
I get it.
You look at that little representative of all the best things about you rolled into huge eyes and a sweet messy smile, and you feel the urge to keep them happy at all costs.
You want to keep from them the agony of failure, the pain of rejection and the self-conscious awkwardness of not fitting in. You want your child to walk through the world believing they can do anything and be anyone and that they are special.
I get all that. I just disagree. Life insists you do all kinds of things that make you unhappy. I don’t want my kids to be happy. I want them to be battle-tested.
When kids are young, you create their whole world. You pick their friends, their clothing, their activities, their entertainment, their education, even their food. It’s easy to construct a perfect existence for them, filled with encouragement.
But that is not maintainable in the long run. At some point, the world gets hold of them, and there’s nothing a parent can do to protect them.
When I decided I was so terrific I should make more of me to populate this already overcrowded world, I figured I owed my kids a certain legacy of competence. I meet my responsibility with love, but I never lose sight of the fact that I am preparing them for something bigger than our relationship.
So, I don’t save them from the hurts of life. These little earthquakes feel huge at the time, but soon fade in importance. More times than not, my kids learn from those hurts, and they use the lesson to develop as people.
There are no lessons in happiness. People don’t grow from joy. The meat of life is in all those other emotions; fear, sadness, frustration. That’s where we do our growing — facing and learning how to navigate those feelings.
The best way for me to raise these people is to give them the tools to find their own way. I can’t follow my children through life clearing a path for them. But I can give them a machete and teach them how to clear their own path. Yes, I just suggested giving children weapons — it’s an analogy. That has been the tactic I’ve been following for the last 17 years.
I parent with love, but I parent with the day I can no longer parent in mind. In each ‘end of days’ moment my kids experience, we pick out the personal responsibility. We talk about our power, and finding the strength that only comes from failures. We talk about facing fears and find the opportunities within.
Parenting will always be a balancing act: Keeping our kids safe, keeping them moving forward and keeping them happy. To make that more doable for our family, I’ve given up on that last one. My kids aren’t always happy, and that’s OK. We embrace the pain together. Through each issue we face, they grow stronger and closer to becoming fully-functioning adults.