“I just want to see my child be happy, Dr. Myers. Is that too much to ask?”
I’ve heard some form of this statement time and again in my counseling practice. The parents are earnest and well-meaning, but I try to gently break it to them that seeking their child’s happiness is a shallow goal.
If they give me a strange look—and a lot do—I may even pull out a quote from some researchers who say that placing a high value on happiness can actually be a risk factor for depression.
Then fear slides into their eyes. I can almost see them thinking, If that’s the case, then have I been parenting wrong all this time? What’s so bad about being happy?
Unfortunately, a lot.
Happy Children Problems
As a parent of two, I’ll take happy children over unhappy children every day, but that’s an unrealistic expectation for toddlers (and for adults). If you choose to parent with your children’s happiness as the end-result of all of your efforts, you will cause a number of unintended, detrimental effects.
Most obviously, you’ll create a child-centered home. If you’re ultimately for their happiness, by default you’ll be against any kind of discipline, because that will certainly make them unhappy. If you’re constantly attempting to please and placate your kids, you will make them feel—and act—like the center of your universe.
Even if you don’t forsake discipline, you may still parent under the umbrella of, “I just want to give my kids everything I didn’t have.” Consequently, you may bend, lean, and yield to them far more often than you should. And kids are smart. When they repeatedly experience you giving in to their demands, they’ll know that their happiness reigns supreme in your household. Then they’ll wield that power to their advantage by using disappointment to manipulate you and get what they want.
Seeking a child’s happiness also fosters egocentrism. When a child believes he or she is the sun to your earth, nothing is ever their fault. Problems at school are always the teacher’s fault. Problems with a friend are always the friend’s fault. Problems at home are always your fault. After all, if everyone else simply rotates around your child, how could your “static,” center-of-the-universe child have caused anything to happen?
Lastly, parenting to pursue a child’s happiness can lead to parental guilt, emotional exhaustion, or a fear of inadequacy. Parents may feel guilty when their child shows little to no remorse for wrongdoing. Or they may feel drained by repeated, failed efforts to fix the problems they see developing in their child. Or they may just feel the fear I sometimes see in my client’s eyes, that they just can’t do anything right when it comes to parenting.
But there is a way out, yet like most biblical teachings, it’s culturally counterintuitive.
Dive for the Deeper Goal
Don’t get me wrong: I want my kids to be happy. It’s not that we can’t be for our children’s happiness; it just shouldn’t be our goal.
To overcome the pressure of raising happy kids, we must learn to raise holy kids.
“Holy” doesn’t actually mean perfect. Rather, “holy” means dedicated to God. In that light, thankfully, we can all have holy children. We can willfully choose to set our children apart to be consecrated by God. But this doesn’t just begin and end with us mentally agreeing with that notion.
We’re parents, so of course we have work to do.
First, realize that true happiness is a byproduct of holiness.
Psalm 19:8 says, “The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.” Psalm 34:12–14 echoes that sentiment: “Whoever of you loves life and desires to see many good days, keep your tongue from evil and your lips from telling lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.”
In looking back over my life, I see how the Lord’s precepts gave joy to my heart. I was most at peace, most content, and truly happiest when I was dedicated to God, whether that was working with impoverished kids, serving at a local soup kitchen, or simply reading Scripture and spending time in prayer. Holiness begets happiness.
Next, you must disappoint your child—on purpose.
If you’re anything like me, this is very challenging to put into practice on a regular basis. In my household, I’m the softy. But every time we fail to give our children the cookie or iPad they so desperately (and constantly) desire, they’ll roll around on the floor in a fit of tears and whining pleas, but they’ll also learn an invaluable lesson: you can’t always get what you want. When you purposefully don’t give your child everything he or she wants, you reveal that the world does not, in fact, revolve around them. You give them a hard glimpse of reality within the safe confines of your home.
You must also enact redemptive—not punitive—punishment.
Redemptive punishment seeks to ultimately build up a child instead of tearing him or her down. Redemptive punishment rights a wrong so that your child makes a better choice the next time. It’s rationally given instead of emotionally vented. It seeks the good of the child over the need for swift, reactive retribution.
For example, my daughter recently stole a toy from my son. She’s done this so many times I’ve stopped counting. We’ve had hundreds of conversations about stealing. Given that she understands the words coming out of my mouth, she shouldn’t do this anymore. But she does, over and over, again and again.
Consequently, when I sit down with her and have the 501st conversation about the same thing, I don’t shame her with my tone or verbiage. She’s doing what she should be doing: selfishly sinning. I don’t get angry with her for two reasons: I love her and she’s just acting like a little girl. I intentionally behave in such a way that communicates I expected her to willfully disobey. So we sit (again) and I explain (again) why she’s in trouble. Then I reassure her that everything will be OK and that this one mistake doesn’t come remotely close to hurting our relationship.
Professionally, I understand redemptive punishment, but I still personally struggle with its practicality. It’s so much easier and less time-consuming to just dole out a quick punishment. But my kids need to be led through their punishment. They need to be comforted in their shame, rationally spoken with through their disobedience, and relationally restored. Yet I’m sure I’ll still wrestle with enacting redemptive punishment for as long as my children are in my house.
And instead of trying to provide momentary happiness, model lasting purpose. Speak and live as if an all-loving, saving God wants to redeem humanity through us. Show your children how they’re just as much part of that plan as adults are. Teach them that they’re active participants in making good out of our sin-sick world.
Lastly, grant your child positional worth.
No matter what they do or who they become, whether president of the United States or a convicted felon, you’ll still love them because they’re your son or daughter. You will love them always and forever because their position with you will never change. Likewise, if you’re a Christian, you have positional worth with God, and we as parents can model his unconditional love for us.
Tragically, I’ve had too many teens tell me they’ve contemplated suicide because of their academic performance. When we discuss why they feel so hopeless, they believe their parents won’t be pleased with them unless they excel in school. This should never be, and it’s a direct result of a parent who’s failed to demonstrate his or her child’s positional worth. Parents must learn how to express disappointment about their children’s decisions without expressing disappointment in their children. Nothing is as important—even school—as a child’s understanding of his or her positional worth in their parents’ eyes.
Our culture placates itself with momentary fixes designed to make us happy for a time, and if we’re not very careful we can let the subtle sickness of happiness infect our children as well. But as Christians, we’re called to achieve something that’s both higher and deeper: to be holy. And if we’re to “Train up a child in the way he should go” so that “when he is old he will not depart from it (Proverbs 22:6),” I’ll recommend seeking a child’s holiness over their happiness—every day.