In working with parents and children of all ages, I have discovered that there is a common misunderstanding that presents a lethal threat to our children’s future happiness. While the source of this erroneous thinking may be unknown, the essence of this faulty thought process is this: “If my son or daughter is struggling, it’s my job to fix it. If they are miserable, I will make them happy. If they are bored, I will get them entertainment. If they can’t do their homework, I will get it done for them.” The ultimate result: We end up working harder at our children’s happiness and success than they do.
3 reasons why this approach always fails!
1. Life is not set up that way. Life rewards those who find happiness with what is given. We see plenty of examples of children and adults with almost countless “goodies” to play with and yet there is no real happiness. When we offer our children a good home, filled with love and ample goodies to play with, we have laid the foundation for them. Effort is required to enjoy that life you offer them. Life responds to effort in every area, including the happiness we discover through full engagement. Children must learn to “engage” with the world they have before them, and when presented with a challenge or obstacle or even boredom, they must discover their own path through this. If they keep asking us to help fix “it” in moments of unhappiness and we do so, we see that our children rarely learn to sustain a positive, happy outlook. (Not to mention that we teach them a false lesson for life about who will be there to fix misery!)
2. We teach our children that it is OUR job to make them happy. This always comes to an ugly ending, but it doesn’t start out that way. Early on, for every moment of misery, sibling unrest or expression of boredom, we spring into action and we fix it. For every canceled play date, we find another so your son never solves his own struggles with friends. For every homework problem too difficult, we make sure the answer is there, so your daughter can smile when she gets her 100%.
Thus, for a number of years, we keep leaping into action and we “make them happy” and fixing it. However, inevitably, we start to get exhausted and frustrated. We are working so hard and, yet, the kids seem to keep finding more misery. Even in this great home, with loving parents, good schools and lots of goodies, they seem unable to maintain happiness. We start to notice how quickly they turn to mom and dad to fix their problems and how little effort they put in themselves.
Eventually, years later, we find that if we keep working harder than they do at their happiness, there is ultimately no amount of effort that we can exert that will make our middle-schooler happy. And even worse, they now blame us for everything. It’s our fault when they aren’t happy or things do go well. And why shouldn’t they blame us? We taught them that it was our job. They are just following in the path we have offered. And yet, the ultimate catch is this….
3. We do not prepare them for life’s disappointments if we keep protecting them from it. While it certainly seems reasonable on the surface to advocate for avoiding disappointment, this approach is harmful. Life has pain and disappointment, and it is experience that prepares us to handle this. In fact, it is the exposure to this and the successful transition through such challenge that set children up for a life of happiness.
Your daughter wants chocolate, but they just sold out. One path is to drive five extra miles to find chocolate and avoid the disappointment. The other is to get her vanilla and allow her to find her way through the moment. While a small example, this does capture the critical lesson: Preparation for life—or protection from it.
Learning to get through disappointment is like building an emotional muscle. We call it resilience. This muscle of resilience allows us to get through tough moments, to move on then to find happiness. Without it, we get stuck in the disappointment and sadness without getting what we wanted. Thus, we need to teach resilience and inner strength for children to find real happiness.
Teaching resilience: The foundation of happiness
1. Believe in your child’s strength. Know that they can handle their life. And then, rather than fixing it, allow the unhappiness or frustration or disappointment to have its place. There may be a few tears, a bit of drama and maybe even some ugly words about mom or dad, but this will pass. And with an open heart, affirm to your child: “I know you can handle it, sweetheart.”
2. Repetitive boredom and other complaints are not your job to fix. When children say “I’m bored Mom,” look around the room and understand that this is a statement that makes no sense. There are lots of things for your kids to do in your home, so allow them to find a way to be entertained. Don’t fix it. Don’t solve it. Don’t direct them. Instead, smile and walk away. And understand that it’s their job in this fortunate world they live in to find their happiness. Give this some time, and you will see that they get better at it. BUT only if we stop trying so hard!
3. Coping with disappointments is a critical life skill to develop. When there is inevitable disappointment, you can certainly coach them a bit but don’t try to fix it. Listen, and assure them that this too will pass. Make sure that your child is working harder at solving the problem than you are, and then resilience will grow with time. As with all positive changes, growth is seen over time. When you make these adjustments, you will see a turn-around that happens within weeks, as a more resilient and a happier child emerges.
Dr. Randy Cale offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. For more information visit www.TerrificParenting.com.