Happiness – Good By-Product… Bad Goal

by Malcolm Gauld
President, Hyde Schools
Author, “College Success Guaranteed: Five Rules to Make It Happen” | Amazon | Facebook

Entering my third decade as a high school teacher in the late 90s, I wasn’t sure why I cringed when I would hear teenagers refer to Mom or Dad as “My Best Friend.”  Everyone in the room would beam with warmth.  It sounded like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

Maybe that’s why my heart lifted when I saw the cover of the July/August Atlantic Monthly magazine.  Featuring an illustration of a golden trophy inscribed with the citation “Good Try,” the headline screams: How the Cult of Self-Esteem is Ruining Our Kids.  The main article, by Lori Gottlieb, is entitled How to Land Your Kid in Therapy – Why the Obsession With Our Kids’ Happiness May Be Dooming Them to Unhappy Adulthoods.

Combining her research with that of several colleagues, Gottlieb makes some points that might strike some as counterintuitive.  She…

  • Argues that our obsession with happiness (and our warped understanding of it) is doing deep  damage to our kids;
  • Poses the idea that we may be spending too much time with our kids;
  • Wonders if we are not serving our own emotional needs at the expense of our kids;
  • Thinks we may be giving our kids too many choices.

Regarding happiness, Gottlieb suggests that “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.”

She quotes Barry Schwartz, a professor at Swarthmore College: “Happiness as a byproduct of living your life is a great thing.  But happiness as a goal is a recipe for disaster.”  Gottlieb wonders, “Could it be that by protecting our kids from unhappiness as children, we’re depriving them of happiness as adults?”

Using the analogy of a young girl who trips and skins her knee, UCLA psychiatrist Paul Bohn makes the case for resisting the parental urge to immediately jump to the child’s aid: “If you don’t let her experience that momentary confusion, give her the space to figure out what just happened (Oh, I tripped), and then briefly let her grapple with the frustration of having fallen and perhaps even try to pick herself up, she has no idea what discomfort feels like, and will have no framework for how to recover when she feels discomfort later in life.”

Gottlieb notes that helping a child with a skinned knee seems like the right thing to do until “these toddlers become the college kids who text their parents with an SOS if the slightest thing goes wrong, instead of attempting to figure out how to deal with it themselves.”

In Too Much of a Good Thing: Raising Children of Character in an Indulgent Age, Harvard psychologist Dan Kindlon argues that the “psychological immunity” that kids must develop requires an acquaintance with painful feelings: “It’s like the way our body’s immune system develops.  You have to be exposed to pathogens, or your body won’t know how to respond to an attack.  Kids also need exposure to discomfort, failure, and struggle.”  Otherwise, he maintains, “By the time they’re teenagers, they have no experience with hardship.”

Turning to the notion of quality time, Gottlieb observes, “Back in graduate school, the clinical focus had always been on how the lack of parental attunement affects the child.  It never occurred to any of us to ask, what if the parents are too attuned?  What happens to those kids?”

These days, it has become a badge of parental honor to boast, “I never miss my kid’s games.”  (I know some who rarely miss a practice!)  Just to offer the jolt of a different perspective, I like to urge parents to miss a game intentionally: “You’ll definitely have something to talk about later.”  They invariably look at me as though I’ve been beamed down from Mars.

My point?  Why are you really going to all the games?  Does it fulfill a need that your child has?  Or does it fulfill a need that you have?  Maybe your father never went to your games.  Maybe you’re trying to fix your family of origin.  (Impossible.)

Family psychologist Jeff Blume believes that “we’re confusing our own needs with our kids’ needs and calling it good parenting.”  He goes on to say, “It’s sad to watch.  I can’t tell you how often I have to say to parents that they’re putting too much emphasis on their kids’ feelings because of their own issues. If a therapist is telling you to pay less attention to your kid’s feelings, you know something has gotten way out of whack.”

Turning to choice, Jean Twenge, co-author of The Narcissism Epidemic, observes, “We treat our kids like adults when they’re children, and we infantilize them when they’re 18 years old.”

Maybe we give our kids a lot of choices because we didn’t have them growing up.  However, Gottlieb notes, “We didn’t expect so much choice, so it didn’t bother us not to have it until we were older, when we were ready to handle the responsibility it requires.”

Gottlieb’s motivation is fueled by too many patients who seem to love their parents but can’t handle life.  As a parent, which would you rather have: a teenager who occasionally professes dislike for you but grows into a well-adjusted 30-year old – OR – a 30-year old who loves you but can’t function as an adult?

If, like me, you’re a Baby-Boomer, you probably want both.  So, stay focused on discipline and respect, and chances are you’ll end up with a well-adjusted adult and a loving relationship.  On the other hand, focus on nurturing a loving relationship and you may well end up with neither.  And that’s a lot worse than the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard.