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Are We Too Focused on Our Kids' Happiness?

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KID HUGGING PARENT
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In a country founded on the principles of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, David Brooks recently committed an act of heresy in the New York Times by taking on happiness and calling on us to consider the potential importance of suffering.

That's a bold move, because as Brooks notes, you could fill a Kindle with all the gigabytes of wisdom devoted to cultivating your personal happiness (and, we'd add, the related topics of self-esteem and success). And behind this relentless focus on happiness is an intense focus on the self -- on building your own career, your own brand, your own 365/24/7 social media channel.

Few groups have embraced this pursuit of happiness as avidly as parents. They are deeply committed to keeping their kids happy, safe and satisfied. And who can blame them? Who doesn't want their kids to be happy? And when we talk to parents, many say that happiness (often achieved through success and high self-esteem) isn't just an end unto itself. They insist it will allow their kids to be good people -- to be kind, caring and empathic.

But as Brooks notes, that's misleading: "Happiness wants you to think about maximizing your benefits. Difficulty and suffering sends you on a different course."

Happiness doesn't automatically lead to goodness. Paradoxically, focusing on it too much can lead to narcissism, self-absorption and can seduce us into ignoring, or exploiting, the plight of other people. High school athletes who degrade their girlfriends can be happy. So can bullies and narcissists. Positive moods can just as easily lead to arrogance and harm. Contentment can breed indifference.

With parents and kids, this focus on happiness and the self has real consequences. Kids are allowed to skip out on obligations to teams and groups because participation no longer makes them happy; they are free to (or even encouraged to) drop friends who are annoying, weird or just not fun; and they sometimes treat the adults in their lives like staff or as invisible -- neglecting to thank them or show appreciation.

So, what's the solution? Brooks calls for us to understand that "physical or social suffering can give people an outsider's perspective, an attuned awareness of what other outsiders are enduring."

And he's right. Our job is to raise kind, caring, upstanding kids who are attuned to others. It's every bit as important as raising happy and successful kids. It's key to kids becoming good citizens, workers and family members. And kind, caring, upstanding kids are an antidote to the bullying, meanness and isolation that we see in schools.

Not only is it the right thing to do, it's good for kids. The final irony is that the data suggest that moral and caring kids tend to be happier kids and adults.

To be sure, sometimes standing up for an important principle or friend can be very painful and that's part of being a caring, moral person. But in general, if children learn to tune in to and care about others, they'll be able to form more meaningful relationships with friends, family members and others. And those relationships are perhaps the most durable source of happiness that we have. If children can learn to deal with conflict, adversity and suffering, they'll also develop coping strategies that are fundamental to their long term happiness.

Let us be clear -- we don't advocate suffering. And we're all in favor of happiness (and success and achievement). But we need to be wiser about how children truly become not only moral, but happier and high-achieving.

As commenter Jeff Ericson noted in response to Brooks' column:

Suffering is real. My 5-year-old son suffers when I make him help with the dishes. So do I -- it would be much easier for both of us to let him be happy and hang out with friends. This is not capricious, but will absolutely make him a better person: one who relates to others, who appreciates the efforts others put forth, who understands that goals and achievements are results of grit and determination as well as desire.

We think parents get what Jeff is saying. When we talk to them, they say they want to raise kind and caring kids, and they often say they're doing so. But there are two challenges.

First, it seems like kids aren't hearing this message. In our surveys of students at diverse schools across the country, we see kids saying that the most important task that has been assigned to them is to succeed. So whatever we're saying, we need to say it more often, and in ways that kids can understand. We might simply tell our children it's just as important to be kind as it is to be happy. We need, too, to be mindful of the subtle ways we prioritize happiness, and we also need to explicitly emphasize goodness. Every day.

Second, parents can benefit from support on how to raise caring kids. Many parents think kids simply need to know that caring and morality are important. Once they know, they'll act properly. If they don't act properly, you simply need to remind them.

That's not quite right. By the age of 6, kids have a pretty good grasp on right and wrong. The challenge is helping them develop a deep commitment to doing what is right and acting in caring ways.

How do kids develop this commitment? It starts with adults. Adults must lead by example. As adults, we need to ask ourselves hard questions about whether we are modeling fairness and kindness day to day. Are we contributing to our communities, taking action against injustice, making even small sacrifices regularly for friends and neighbors? Are we showing concern for the suffering of others and helping our children understand how to be helpful to others?

In addition to leading by example, kids need clear, consistent and high expectations and standards. There are many everyday actions that make a difference in the long-run. We should not let teenagers treat us like doormats or be rude to others. We should insist that kids write thank you notes. We should expect kids to help with household chores instead of giving them an allowance or praise for helping. Just as important, we can help kids learn to notice and care about people outside of their tight circle of family and friends.

This isn't easy. It takes time, it takes discipline. You might say there will be some suffering involved -- it may be easier to just focus on your kid's happiness, as Jeff suggests.

But easier is not necessarily better. Not for your kids, who will be happier when they are caring for other people. And not for a society that increasingly needs kind and caring people in the face of political gridlock, economic turmoil, natural disasters, and an unraveling social safety net.

You can't always be there for your kid. So, make sure they can be there for someone else. And hope that caring is contagious, and that someone will be there for your kid.

After all, that's the entire basis of a community.