Does Overemphasizing Happiness Hurt Your Kids?
Some experts warn ‘Don’t make their happiness your greatest concern’
What could possibly be wrong with wishing anyone happiness?
After all, scientific evidence for the benefits of happiness is compelling. Studies show happier people experience better health, stronger immune systems, better marriages, and deeper friendships. How could stressing happiness in our parenting possibly harm our children? Authors and parenting experts Aaron Cooper and Eric Keitel have a surprising response in I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy.
Potentially Negative Effects on Development
Clinical psychologist Cooper and school administrator Keitel believe plenty may go wrong for a child’s development and future emotional health when parents articulate happiness as too high a priority. When well-meaning parents focus their energies primarily on fostering happiness they may inadvertently:
• overshield kids from experiences that build resilience.
• downplay the importance of moral and ethical behavior.
• exhaust or neglect themselves just to keep the kids happy.
• confuse their kids with mixed messages about what they expect from them.
• feel unnecessary guilt or shame when their children aren’t happy “enough.”
When parents make their children’s happiness their greatest concern, these experts believe it can have detrimental effects on the developing child. When kids learn it is critically important to always feel happy, this message can be confusing. The authors believe too many kids:
• Don’t know how to handle difficult feelings such as anger, sadness, and hurt.
• Operate as if they’re the center of the universe.
• Crumple easily in the face of tough challenges or disappointments.
• Feel guilty or ashamed when they’re not happy “enough.”
Children may equate happiness with getting their way, having fun, and material possessions, but parents can lead them toward authentic happiness. One concrete way the authors suggest is indulging them less. “Gently denying our children some of the things they ask for is more likely to foster gratitude, than giving them so much that they come to expect that life’s bounty is limitless.”
Debunking Happiness Myths
Despite the fact that sociology and happiness research reveals neither more money, more achievement, nor more choices is associated with increased happiness, many parents continue to perpetuate these myths.
What does true happiness look like? The research indicates happier people possess close social relationships. They are in happy marriages and claim religious faith. The happiest among us report they are married to their best friend, and the least happy are in unhappy marriages.
University of Illinois professor Ed Diener studies happiness across cultures and discovered that money is sometimes a predictor of happiness. In his book Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, he says in poor nations where basic needs are not met, money does matter. However, money is NOT a predictor of happiness within wealthy societies like the U.S. Happier people generally function better, and their happiness remains stable over time and across situations.
Cooper and Keitel urge parents to rethink and relearn what it truly means to be happy so children may effectively manage difficult feelings such as anger, sadness, and hurt. They believe that this trend of overemphasizing happiness is partly to blame for increasing rates of depression and anxiety among youth.
Nurturing Authentic Happiness
I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy suggests eight seeds parents can plant within their children for life-long happiness:
1. Good mental and physical health.
2. A life of meaning.
3. Closeness to others.
4. Acts of loving kindness.
5. A sense of gratitude.
6. A sense of spirituality.
7. An optimistic outlook.
8. Gratifying pursuits.
There are intentional and mindful activities parents can incorporate to “till the soil” for the eight seeds discussed above.
* Build connectedness.
* Cherish playtime.
* Stress the importance of practice and mastery.
* Provide recognition.
* Teach self-control.
* Emphasize the value of character.
Little Changes to Make Today
Don’t be afraid of boredom. Cooper and Keitel say one of the mistakes parents often make is assuming boredom for children is the enemy and is a symptom of unhappiness. “Don’t be afraid of boredom. Don’t think you have to remedy your kids’ moments with a buffet of activity choices. ‘I’m bored’ often serves as the prelude to the exercise of imagination and creativity, an opportunity for play.”
Begin modeling self-control. For example, the authors suggest: “Deny yourself in the face of temptation, and let them see it. ‘That jacket in the window is so nice, but I don’t really need it.’ Or ‘I’d really like a new car stereo, but it’s not in the budget.’ Do the same with food—‘That sundae looks delicious, but I’ve had enough to eat’—and with frustration in general—‘It’s no pleasure waiting in this long line, but we’ll make the best of it.’”
Michele Ranard has a husband, two children, and a master’s in counseling. She is a freelance writer with a passion for helping families.