Are We Helping Our Kids To Be Happy? Reconsidering the Criteria for Joy
Last year at my mother-in-law’s birthday, someone asked her what her birthday wish was. “For all my children to be happy,” she said resolutely. I hear the same sentiment echoed in my own mother’s words regularly. Now that I am a mother, I understand this clear and present wish. I, too, want above all else for my daughter to be happy. Yesterday, while visiting a small town America library, I came across a new book by Christian Gross-Loh called Parenting Without Borders: Surprising Lessons Parents Around the World Can Teach Us. I thumbed through it a bit and settled on a section about feeling good/self-esteem and was pleasantly surprised by what I read. It seems the U.S. is a standout for having the most pressured, least-happy children. I think I could have guessed that our culture would be among the top stressed, contributed to by our emphasis on gaining, achieving and acquiring, but I was surprised by what the international comparison as set forth by Gross-Loh revealed. When interviewing parents and experts from countries across the globe, Gross-Loh discovered that outside the U.S. it is quite unusual to focus on a child’s self-esteem which, if inflated inaccurately as is the tendency in the U.S., can often to lead to disappointment and a sense of failure in us as we grow older. We find that we may not hold the top spots we are lead to believe we do, or certainly can. We get to harder high schools and then colleges with more “competition” and higher expectations, and can experience drastic drops in our sense of security, causing unhappiness. This is one specific example, but what is expressed in this section of Parenting Without Borders has more to do with how our points of view on success, what qualifies as “good”, are formed. In places like Germany, Norway and Japan, the emphasis tends more to be on the joy of normalcy – being good enough. There is not the same push to be “great”, be “anything you want to be”, be a star, be a super-human. Here in the U.S. it seems, super heroes are the only ones who have achieved our inherited goals. Most of us, unable to meet the standards we’re offered – the sky’s-the-limit goals we’re fed by family, friends and the media – are unhappy with the outcomes of our (mostly) normal lives. Surprisingly, this push to greatness also comes with inflated sense of abilities and children in the U.S. report they are better at things than they really are (innocently, sincerely). Step over to my life. I’m a mom living in Chile, with a new(ish) child, having had a fairly exciting life of important jobs, celebrity acquaintance, international travel, lions, tigers and bears, oh my! Now, settling in to motherhood, my chief concern is my daughter’s well being, her health – ultimately, her happiness. I, too, realize that my own goals for my life have shifted. I now just want to be happy. Imagine that. No rock-star ambitions, no big money corporate success goals, no aspirations for public acclaim of any kind (outside of a few readers of these blog posts, surely). I wonder, where did all that energy, time and money go? Why did I work so hard to “be something” when what is truly important is simple happiness. Reflecting on this new, more normalized ambition and taking cues from parents across the globe, I’m considering more deeply and superficially how I can offer my child (perhaps children as it may become), a life that feeds not grand ambitions, but simple contented joy. How can I love up their relaxed, confident, kind humanity? The answers coming to me are surprising. I’m struck by a desire to settle down in a small town, not too pretentious, maybe even send them to school (I’ve been a pretty vocal advocate for unschooling). Um, maybe. Perhaps I’ll stop questioning every ingredient in every food their cousins are eating in front of them – just let them participate normally, simply. Etc. etc. How to normalize life for them, that is my question of the moment – assuming “normalizing” might feed happiness more than fostering a bubble of specialness. I also assume that by relaxing all the “well-read” hyper-health-oriented standards I lovingly hold for my family, will reduce the stress and micro-managing tendencies I pass on to them (fingers crossed). Jury is out on all of this, but meandering the roads of parenting doubt and new inspiration in itself is contenting, a little delightful actually. Whenever I stumble across a new idea that helps me relax my expectations for myself and my family, my day is a little extra blissful. I suppose that’s because I want happiness over “rightness”, joy over pride. Questions and discovery go far to unseat my inner know-it-all and set me right inside the “normal” bubble I’ve found myself desiring. My hope in all of this? That it helps me and my family be more happy. That’s it, and that’s enough. Amen. What do you think? Push our kids to reach for the sky or teach them the simple joys of digging in the earth? Mutually exclusive? I’d love to hear your thoughts!