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MCLEOD: Why trying to make your children happy makes everyone miserable

Lisa McLeod

Lisa McLeod

If you ask people what they want for their children, most will tell you that they just want their kids to grow up to be happy.

As the hands-on portion of my own parenting journey winds down, I find myself reflecting on the more strategic aspects of the job. I’ve come to realize that there’s a big difference between raising a child who has the skills to become a happy adult, versus trying to make your kids happy while you’re doing it.

Childhood happiness has become the scorecard by which adults measure their success or failure as parents. This is, I believe, a fundamental (yet well-intended) error that results in great unhappiness for parents, and future unhappiness for kids.

In previous generations, the primary purpose of parenting was to raise workers, people who could help you on the farm, learn a vocation, or at the very least, not get in your way while you tended to your own responsibilities.

Then something shifted. A generation who wished that their own parents had been more sensitive decided that we were going to do more than just feed and clothe our children; we were going to make them happy.

I say we because, like many of my peers, when I became a parent, I vowed that I would do my best to create a happy home.

It’s a well-intended, but misguided goal.

Here’s why: Constantly striving to please your kids turns them into your boss. Their happiness becomes your performance review. Instead of allowing them to sit with the discomfort of a bad decision, or wallow in the misery of a social blunder, you want to fix it. After all, isn’t it your job to keep them happy?

No, it’s not. Alleviating unhappiness denies kids the chance to learn the skills of becoming a resilient adult.

Imagine an Olympic coach who was unwilling to allow her players to experience discomfort. Would they ever even leave the locker room? You can’t grow without experiencing moments of pain and discomfort.

Don’t get me wrong; I want my children to be happy. I want to be sensitive to their needs. I want them to feel loved and adored. I want them to have the confidence that their parents are behind them, no matter what.

AND, I also want them to learn how to deal with setbacks. I want them to know that life is mostly good, yet parts of it are really hard and sometimes horribly unfair.

The nuance is important. I no longer strive to have an always happy home. I’ve come to realize that a mostly happy home is a better aim.

It’s the difference between strategy and tactics. Parenting can be a very tactical job. You fix the dinner, you drive to practice, you do the laundry, then repeat the process about a thousand times.

But from a strategic perspective, the end game isn’t getting the tasks done. Nor is it to keep all the parties happy while you’re doing it.

The real goal of parenting is to create people who bring joy and love into the world, and who can rebound and take care of themselves when things go wrong.

Kids can’t grow up to be happy without experiencing moments of unhappiness along the way. You don’t have to create unhappy moments for your kids; life will take care of that.

A parent’s job, really all of our jobs, is to teach the next generation the skills they need to create their own happiness.

Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of several books, including “Selling with Noble Purpose: How to Drive Revenue and Do Work That Makes You Proud.”