Happy kids. How do we make our kids happy? Every parent asks themselves this question.
Here’s why you actually shouldn’t try. (This was originally an episode of my new Peaceful Parenting Show.)
If we let the goal of having happy kids shape our parenting decisions, we get into all sorts of hot water. Trying to make your kids happy is not only unrealistic, but it can get in the way of the development of resilience and emotional intelligence. It also makes parenting in the day-to-day extremely hard. Trying to make your kids happy can also make you feel like a really bad parent when you’ve attached your self-worth to an impossible ideal!
Here’s why we shouldn’t try to make our kids happy:
Trying to make your kids happy is unrealistic and undesirable.
No one is happy all the time. Suffering and difficulty are part of the human condition. Some of the richness of life comes from experiencing the highs and the lows. We have to learn to welcome all of our children’s emotions (and our own!) and to know that every feeling- good or bad- will pass. In our wholeness we experience both pain and joy.
Trying to make your kids happy gets in the way of developing resilience.
What is resilience? It’s the ability to recover from setbacks and to persevere in hard situations. Resilience, or grit, is a big predictor of happiness and success in life.
Children develop resilience by experiencing difficulties and and learning they can do hard things. They have to experience hardship to know they can handle it and overcome it. This starts when kids are little and might be unhappy about not having another cookie. As they grow they might be unhappy about not getting to buy a toy at the store and later maybe getting a bad grade on a test. If we give a cookie, buy the toy, call the teacher to make them happy, we are hindering their ability to overcome hardship.
Kids need to learn they will survive the disappointment of no cookie and can wait for their birthday for the toy, and that they can study more next time to do well on the test. If we try to pave the way for them- to make them happy by making life easier- they become handicapped by their own inexperience with overcoming challenges.
Trying to make kids happy gets in the way of emotional intelligence.
Emotional resilience, or emotional intelligence (EQ), means your child can manage their emotions in a healthy way. Psychologists believe that EQ affects quality of life and later success even more than IQ.
We help our children become emotionally intelligent when we welcome all their difficult emotions and hold space for them with empathy. If we try to fix things or get them to move on and get over it because we want them to be happy, we aren’t helping them process their feelings and we are sending the message that difficult emotions are to be avoided.
If your child comes home from school and is upset about their friend being mean to them, of course you want to fix it and make her feel better. But if we want our child be have great EQ, we have to help them process their difficult feelings. We can say, “Oh that must have been so hard darling! I would have been so sad if that happened to me. Come on let’s have a snuggle and you can tell me about it.”
Children become emotionally resilient when they have the experience of someone else being with them in empathy when things feel hard. When we can help them feel their feelings and process them calmly, lovingly and empathetically, they learn that big feelings are not an emergency and that they can manage anything. If we are always trying to make them happy (shut the feelings down or fix things!) children can’t learn to manage their difficult emotions.
Trying to make kids happy makes day-to-day life really hard.
If we are focussed on making our kids happy, we might negotiate too much, explain too much or avoid setting limits.
Sometimes as parents we have limited time with our children and we don’t want that time to be taken up by disappointment and meltdowns. We might try to give kids what they are asking for, another cookie, longer on the iPad, to avoid conflict. We feel like we are walking on eggshells or doing a song-and-dance routine to try to make our children happy.
Sometime we explain or negotiate too much, hoping that if we can just get our child to agree or to understand, they won’t have hard feelings about the limit we are setting. This can be exhausting. And guess what? It never works! You will never get your child to agree with you that it’s a good idea to turn off the tv.
We can’t expect our children to be happy with the limits we need to set- but we can support them emotionally through their upset and disappointment. (In fact, this is how they develop grit and emotional intelligence!)
It can be so hard to set limits and it is so hard when your child is unhappy with you. But parenting is easier and your children are better off when you are comfortable with setting firm and kind limits. You can use this line I used all the time with my children: “It would be a lot easier for me to say yes right now but I love you enough to say no. It’s okay if you’re mad at me. I know it feels like I’m the meanest mama ever right now. It’s okay.”
Trying to make our kids happy makes us feel like bad parents when they aren’t.
Being a good parent means your child is unhappy with you sometimes. This is hard for so many of us! We have somehow gotten the message that we are great parent if our kids are happy. We feel like failures when our kids melt down or are angry at us. It’s really okay if your child is unhappy with you! It doesn’t mean you’re a bad parent!
When our children are unhappy because things are hard, we need to support them and help them figure out what they need to do and try again. We need to welcome all their feelings- even the really difficult ones that make us uncomfortable. We need to set limits that and support them through the disappointment and frustration that follow. We are helping them grow into resilient, emotionally healthy people who will live life in all its richness.
Hold this in your heart during the hard times. Trying to make your kids happy can’t and won’t make you a great parent. What makes a great parent is showing up with love and empathy and patience every day.
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Sarah Rosensweet is a peaceful parenting coach and educator. She lives in Toronto with her husband and three big kids (ages 10, 13, and 16). Sarah teaches parents a non-punitive, connection-based approach that uses firm limits with lots of empathy. Sarah is an API certified parenting educator and is certified by Dr. Laura Markham as an Aha! Peaceful Parenting Coach. Find her at sarahrosensweet.com