I heard these words from a young mother in regards to her small daughter over the weekend, and they have been itching at my brain for days. They aren't uncommon words, I've heard them spoken by other parents of other children on other days. In fact, it is a pretty common sentiment, almost a modern parenting mantra. But something about those words just haven't felt right to me.
Surely, the highest goal, the pinnacle of parenting success, the mother of all attainment is that we produce happy people. We speak of it as if nothing else matters. Because if they achieve greatness and money and success but are miserably unhappy, it has all been for naught, right?
In that light, achieving a high level of happiness seems pretty important. But should it really be the ultimate goal?
2013 poll showed that two thirds of Americans are not "very happy". Antidepressants are the third most common prescription drug. And with the majority of Americans unhappy and dissatisfied with their jobs, the lack of happiness in the United States starts to look like a frightening epidemic.
Or maybe the placement of happiness on such a high pedestal is a reflection of the new culture of acceptance. Today's parents have seen friends cower in closets of sexuality because they were afraid of disappointing their parents. They've also watched adults while away their days miserably working a job they hate just because it pays well. And so we've decided to accept our children as they are and support them no matter their goals, because we want them to "just be happy".
But here's the deal... there is a whole lot more to life than just being happy.
By saying, "I just want my kids to be happy" without qualifying the statement, it insinuates that any choice is acceptable as long as it makes them happy. Does this mean that we are okay with our children choosing to live in our basement and smoke pot and play video games? ... as long as they are happy. Is it okay for them to drop out of school and work the rest of their lives as a cashier at McDonald's, getting people's orders wrong, and counting out incorrect change? ...as long as they are happy. What if the become big bank brokers or corrupt used car salesmen and cheat old ladies? ... as long as they are happy. What if they insist on ordering their steaks well done at nice restaurants? ... Surely we have to draw the line somewhere.
By telling our children that we "just want them to be happy", we are sending a message that is apt to develop little narcissists. It tells our children that there is nothing more important than their feelings, that their personal happiness is the ultimate pursuit. We've already sent them that message through our helicopter-style parenting, orbiting around them like planets around the sun. So telling them that our only desire for them in life is that they be happy reinforces the notion that they are all that matters. Screw other people and their feelings. Screw higher causes and deeper meaning. Screw doing anything challenging or difficult. And while we're at it, let's just selfishly encourage them to consume senselessly while using other people to get what they want.
Happiness is such a fleeting thing and it is all too often confused with pleasure. The pleasure of eating a cupcake or buying a new blouse or engaging in casual sex may seem like they bring happiness at the time, but those things, while surely pleasurable, can leave us feeling unfulfilled. Happiness isn't something you can consume or buy or sleep with. But because pleasure feels so much like happiness, we often find ourselves grasping and reaching for the next pleasurable experience because we think that's what it takes to make us happy. And since happiness is all we want for our children, it could leave them grasping at brief moments of gratification, never accomplishing anything and never achieving any real and lasting happiness anyway.
And there are far worse things our children could end up being than unhappy.
I don't want my kids to just be happy.
I want my children to be productive and empathetic and gracious. I want them to be generous and hard-working and passionate. I want to raise people with purpose and character. The world needs more citizens who are honest and genuine and humble. I want them to give of themselves, to work hard for a worthwhile cause, to be part of lasting solutions to big problems, to be part of something bigger than themselves. I want them to strive to be better than they already are, to pursue goals that aren't easily achieved, and most of all I want them to be kind.
Interestingly enough, happiness seems to be a natural byproduct of those things. It's almost like when we stop looking for it, chasing it, desiring it, and focus on the really worthwhile things, happiness seems to find us. By focusing on others, while reaching for the things that are truly valuable, happiness just kind of happens.
So I hope that isn't all you really want for your kids, because if that's all you want for them, they'll likely never find it.