Raise a happy child

All parents want their kids to have a happy life. They also want them to be good people. But which comes first?

By Jay Teitel
Raise a happy child

When my son Zeke, our middle child, was seven years old, I co-coached his baseball team — the optimistically named Future Trends — and with uncharacteristic good fortune for teams I coached, we reached the championship game. The umpire failed to show up, and it was decided that the teams’ coaches would fill in. The Future Trends came to bat in the bottom of the last inning, trailing six to five. My son was up first and hit a double; the next batter singled him over to third. Then we popped two out to the infield. Our next batter hit a slow grounder; the shortstop fielded it cleanly and threw to first. It was a close play at the base, bang-bang. The other coach had made a couple of iffy calls, and had I overlooked the fact that I saw our hitter’s foot come down on the base a split second after the first baseman caught the ball, I could have gotten away with it. But I did see the play that way, and I called our batter out. And we lost the game.

In the car going home, my son was inconsolable.

“Why did you have to call him out?” he said, between gasps of tears. “He was safe.”

“Zeke, he looked out to me. What could I do? I had to call him out.”

“No, you didn’t,” he said. “You could have called him safe. I would have been so… (he had to catch his breath to get the word out) ...happy.”

His heart was broken, and mine, of course, was too. He had invoked the magic incantation: happiness. I could have caused his spirit to soar, but I had chosen instead to sink it. I would have done anything at that moment to go back and replay the scene.

The thing is, I was pretty sure I would have called the kid out again.

How things have changed

Throughout human history, whenever a civilization has reached the point where pleasure is its primary goal — Nero’s Rome, Marie Antoinette’s France — it’s been deemed decadent and on the way to ruin. The elevation of happiness to the peak of human aspiration has traditionally been seen as an improper preoccupation for mature moral beings. And while it was assumed that children would naturally be more primitive in their lust for instant gratification, behaving on that impulse was not tolerated. Children should be seen and not heard was one way of saying that kids’ contentment was of secondary importance to the rules of civilized behaviour.

But things have changed. Ours may be the first era in which the pursuit of happiness, for children as well as adults, is promoted by some psychologists as a necessary moral good, the precursor of goodness itself. This isn’t just an academic notion: In surveys today, young people consistently say happiness is significantly more likely than suffering to make someone a moral person. The thinking seems to go: If you’re happy with yourself, your capacity to be generous and behave humanely toward others increases. Happiness now has “cred” as a life goal; as Harvard child psychologist Richard Weissbourd says in his book The Parents We Mean to Be, happiness has become “deep.”

For parents, this means that finding the balance between discipline and permissiveness, between inculcating values in their children and helping them become independent, can be doubly tricky. Rebecca Brown, 35, a Toronto mother of two young children and founder of Bunch, a company that hosts large-scale creative events for families, says parents have always wanted their kids to be happy. But she sees the disciplinary style of the parents in her circle as markedly different from that of previous generations. “The focus is on fostering empathy in your kids,” says Brown. “There’s a real desire for dialogue in situations of conflict, wanting your kids to come to some sort of realization themselves.”

For example, your four-year-old throws something at another four-year-old; rather than chastise him, you ask him to imagine how the other child feels. Intentionally or not, this brand of moral education has the effect of cooling the process of authority — of generally making it more pleasant to be “told off,” so that everyone can get back to being happy. The difficulty comes when this approach doesn’t cut it, when your four-year-old just laughs and keeps throwing projectiles, and you have to decide whether to continue reasoning with him or toss him over your shoulder and cart him home. (Or decide whether to fudge it and call an eight-year-old safe at first base or buck up, call him out and then watch your own child sob in the car 10 minutes later.)

Happiness = goodness

Enter the happiness = goodness paradigm, meant to give us another way to teach our kids right from wrong. The theory goes something like this: Children need to feel good about themselves (gain self-esteem) in order to feel good about life (be happy) in order to do good unto others (be moral citizens of the world).


The concept of self-esteem was first introduced more than 100 years ago by the American psychologist William James. He devised a formula that goes something like this: If you set realistic goals for yourself and then meet those goals, you’ll end up with positive self-esteem. If a grade three student strives to finish a one kilometre run with his class (rather than finish first) and then meets this goal through effort and ambition, this would result in him feeling positive self-esteem. Self-esteem was directly tied to doing well in the real world; feeling good was the result of self-esteem, not the other way around. This idea was vindicated in the 1960s, when Stanley Coopersmith, a psychologist at the University of California at Davis, found that kids whose parents enforced clear rules had high self-esteem, while kids whose parents allowed them untrammelled freedom and expected very little of them had low self-esteem.

But somewhere along the line, the self-esteem formula became inverted: Feeling good came before doing well and was bred from intangible, amorphous sources — parental approval, self-confirmation — which, through some mysterious process, produced success.

The result today is a situation that Martin Seligman, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, considers a scandal. In his 1995 book, The Optimistic Child, Seligman noted that poor self-esteem was regularly blamed for academic failure, drug use and other childhood ills. The solution — which Seligman considers totally misguided — was to address only the feeling side of self-esteem. Following this approach, the dad of a 12-year-old who didn’t make the school basketball team would tell his son that he did great, he was as good as the other kids, and it was just bad luck that kept him off the squad. Seligman says this kind of “boosting” is dangerous to a child’s confidence because it rings false. Kids aren’t fools: They don’t feel happy because parents tell them they’re great. They feel happy when they do well.

Happiness and morals

And what about the second part of the modern equation — that happy kids are more likely to be good, moral people? This appears shaky too. Studies have shown that a whole gamut of young sociopaths — playground bullies, gang leaders, violent delinquents — often have high self-esteem, display zero empathy for their victims and, for a time at least, are remarkably happy. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were homicidal monsters, but indications are that they were pretty pleased with their vocations — and themselves. Neither was primarily concerned with the pursuit of happiness. “Those only are happy,” wrote the English political philosopher John Stuart Mill, “who have their minds fixed on some object other than their own happiness.”

If, on the one hand, we want our kids to be happy in life, clearing their paths of every impediment does them a disservice because surmounting obstacles is necessary to feel a sense of accomplishment — the precursor of true self-esteem. And if, on the other hand, we want our kids to be good people, it’s not enough to push them to find activities they can excel in and be fulfilled by because those activities might end up being bullying — or worse. Weissbourd alludes to a need for parents to reclaim the idea of “nobility” if they hope to nurture moral children. This means teaching our kids the benefits of sacrifice, shame, self-criticism, even sadness. If you step over a homeless person on the sidewalk, your child gets one idea; drop a loonie in his hat, she gets another; take the trouble to ask how he is and what he needs, she gets another message still. Fun is fun; virtue can be a pain in the ass and, sometimes, painful in the more literal sense.

One of the most poignant moments in The Parents We Mean to Be occurs when a Chicago mother describes how it came to her “suddenly one day that parenting is a moral task, that the principle of being the mother of a child who is a good person is more important than how much my kids like me or how happy they are in the moment.” How could anyone put the bottom line of parenting more perfectly, you think, reading the quote. And how did we get to the point where it could be such a surprise?

Happiness defined

Much as we want our children to live happy lives, most of us know that happiness goes and happiness comes, and it comes in different packages. Some children by nature are not cheerful, but their lack of outward glee isn’t an indication of angst or a phase — it’s just the way they are. My youngest daughter, whose name is Emma Rose, recently acquired the nickname Em-morose from her friends because of her telephone voice as much as anything else. She’s not sad, she’s just not ecstatic when she answers a call. Does she have to be? Creative children can be incredibly fulfilled, but also really solitary — and cranky when you violate that solitude. And melancholy children may know something we don’t. A recent study at the University of Plymouth in the UK showed that young children had a harder time locating simple shapes embedded in complex figures when they were happy than when they were sad. “Happiness,” the authors of the study concluded, “may have unintended and possibly undesirable cognitive consequences, even in childhood.”

The English definition of happiness comes from the word happ, meaning chance or fortune (the same root applies to happenstance, haphazard and perhaps). But the ancient Greek definition of happiness (from the word eudemonia or “good spirit”) points in another direction. According to the philosopher Aristotle, happiness can’t be separated from the things we do. Happiness is more a state of grace we enjoy when our everyday lives are in sync with virtue. We can’t feel happy unless we also feel we’re doing the right thing.

Which would you rather have: a happy child who’s sometimes less than admirable or an admirable child who’s sometimes less than happy? My son, a most admirable guy, is still mad at me all these years later for calling his teammate out. And I’m still glad — no, happy — that I did.

This article was originally published on Dec 07, 2009

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