By Randy Cale, Ph.D.
In working with parents and children of all ages, I have discovered that there is a common mistake that presents a serious 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: “It’s my job to make you happy, fix your problems and make life easier than I had it.”
This translates to something like this: If they are unhappy, I should keep offering solutions. If they are bored, I should entertain them. If they complain about their life, I should listen and keep affirming their concerns—again and again and again. If they find their homework hard, I should make it easier. And finally, with the 237 toys/gadgets in their arsenal of entertainment, if they can’t find something to play with, I should always make myself available.
The ultimate result (i.e., HUGE problem): We end up working harder at our children’s happiness and success than they do.
3 reasons why this “working harder than they do” approach fails
1. Life is not set up that way. Life rewards those who put effort into their happiness.
We all know this. We must find our own happiness in our situation. Changing the external circumstances is never the long-term path to happiness. We see 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 with great toys and a safe place to play, they must then learn to find happiness. If they keep asking us to help fix “it” in moments of unhappiness, and we do, we see that our children (rarely) learn to sustain a positive, happy outlook.
2. We teach/program our children that it is someone else’s job to make them happy.
This always comes to an ugly ending. For a while, we can keep jumping through hoops, trying our best to make sure things go well. We start to get exhausted and frustrated. We are working so hard but yet, the kids seem to keep finding misery. It goes like this: Even in this great home, loving parents, good schools and lots of toys, they seem unable to maintain happiness, and we keep trying to help them. Eventually, years later, parents find that if we keep working harder than the child does at happiness, there is ultimately no amount of effort that they can exert that will make their middle-schooler happy. And even worse, the child now blames them for everything. It’s our fault when the child isn’t happy or things don’t go well. In later years, it will always be someone else who causes that misery. And why shouldn’t children 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 the following.
3. We do not prepare them for life’s disappointments, if we keep protecting them from it.
While it certainly seems reasonable to advocate for avoiding disappointment for your children, this approach actually is not helpful. It is harmful. Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not suggesting you set up as much disappointment for your child as possible.
No. What I am suggesting is that life is naturally going to involve times when you don’t get what you want. This is reality. Your children will need to learn how to handle these moments, without mom or dad rushing in to “save the day.”
Learning to get through disappointment is like building an emotional muscle. We might even call it the emotional muscle of “resilience.” Resilience is built on experience, at least to a degree. And the more we protect our children from moments of disappointment, the more we disable them from building this critical emotional muscle.
The healthy prescription for emotional resilience
1. Belief in your child’s strength. Express this as, “I know you can handle it, sweetheart.” 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.
2. It’s not your job to fix boredom and other complaints. When they say they are bored, 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. Understand, it’s their job, in this very lucky world we live in, to find their happiness. Give this some time, and you will see that they actually 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. Give them options. But it’s their job to implement the solutions.
As with all positive changes, growth is seen over time. When you make these adjustments, you will see resistance, followed by a healthy turn-around that happens within weeks. Best of luck and remember to follow me on Facebook and Twitter. Dr. Randy Cale offers practical guidance for a host of parenting concerns. For more information visit www.TerrificParenting.com.