Happiness myth traps parents


There’s a parenting proverb that says, “Prepare not the path for the child, but prepare the child for the path.” I can’t find the source of it, though I once had a lovely decorative tile with this phrase that I kept in my kitchen until my son broke it. At the time he apparently was on a path of destruction.

There’s a lot of wisdom in that phrase, but in our culture, it seems we parents spend a good part of our time trying to smooth out the bumps in the road for our children, rather than help them develop their own sets of internal shock absorbers. Our fixation on our children’s happiness has created a perverse and unnatural reality. We’re raising up a generation that expects life to always be fair and predictable; and also not too painful and not too difficult.

So entrenched are today’s children in the habitual comforts of their parent’s largess that the media created a narrative around the question, “How to say ‘no’ to kids in this difficult economy?” It’s hard to say which generation ought to be more insulted by such a suggestion – our youth, who apparently are so coddled that we don’t expect they’ll understand the notion of family sacrifice, or their parents, who are such wimps they don’t even know how to utter a simple phrase such as, “Sorry, kid, money’s tight.”

If I were issuing the indictment, I’d name the parents. I’m neither a historian nor a social scientist, and the only letters after my name are “M-O-M,” so take my opinion for what it’s worth, but I believe our culture has promoted a truly inept parenting standard that fulfills neither objective in that wise, old proverb. We’re not preparing our children for what’s to come by molding their character, as we should, and instead we’re deluding ourselves into thinking we can manipulate the universe to our liking.

There are myriad reasons to explain the general lack of parenting skills that’s become the norm. Some blame poverty or a supposed lack of social services for families, others point to the uneven playing field on which parents must help their children to achieve equal levels of success. Others say it’s the pressure to provide for our children’s material needs that keeps us from attending to their character development – something we would surely do if only we had national child care (as if.)

I think the culprit is something I call “the happiness myth.” It’s the belief on the part of parents that the principal job of parenting is to make our children happy. This is our cultural standard, as if happiness is a worthwhile measure of success and that maintaining a constant state of happiness will assure a continued constant state of happiness. All our focus on raising happy children robs them of the ability to be content and the skills to find intrinsic joy in life, no matter their circumstances.

In short, we’re working so hard to make them happy, we’re going to make them miserable.

Parents must accept and teach that life isn’t fair, and that this truism is neither good nor bad. It just is. We’re all gifted to a degree, but not all of us in the same way or to the same degree. We take life as it comes, we apply our talents and do our best, we rise above adversity, and we overcome.

A generation of children raised in such a way just might have what it takes to change the path. The question remains: Are we a generation of parents that will prepare them as we should?

Copyright 2009 Marybeth Hicks


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  1. I think you hit the nail on the head! Of course, everyone wants kids to be happy, but we also want them to develop the inner resources it takes to make it through life. I think part of the problem is the emphasis on self-esteem…or I should say on false self-esteem. REAL self-esteem comes from working hard, meeting challenges, and coming back from failure, but often kids aren’t given the chance to do any of that!

  2. So true. My Mom always told us that if we made poor choices we’d end up falling down and she wasn’t going to stop the fall…but she’d be there to help us dust ourselves off after so we could continue on.

  3. It’s rather like we helmet and kneepad and scotchguard the world rather than teach the kid to 1) not bike dangerously, 2) learn to ballance while skating and to be mindful of one’s body around the good furniture. We don’t require mindfulness. Well said.

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