Define Happiness

by Michelle Lasley

Michelle Lasley is a mother, wife in Pacific Northwest learning to balance green dreams with budget realities.

June 18, 2011

Reading this article in The Atlantic: How to Land Your Kid in Therapy, where the author explores our definition of happiness and “overparenting” could be contributing to children as they turn adults feeling unhappy and adrift. She breezes through the last few decades of American Parenting, recognizing one common trend: most parents want their children to be happy. So, why are so many seemingly well adjusted kids seeking therapy in their adult years because they are unhappy? All these patients had great parents, great jobs, and great education in common. So, what was their problem?

The article posits that people are looking to Happiness to be the end goal, the thing we always strive for. Think of our Declaration of Independence, where in our cessation from England we declare that we have the right to the pursuit of happiness. When did pursuit get dropped? When did we assume that we had the right to, simply, happiness?

Bad things happen in life. People abuse you. People leave you. People die. You lose money. You lose your livelihood. You are put under stress. People misuse your trust. People use you. You win. You gain. You earn. You love. Growing up, you sort through all the things people do to you to figure out where you belong and what you want. If happiness is the end goal, the thing we strive for every minute of every day – how does basic humanity fit into it all?

The article continues, arguing that this fear of adult unhappiness is lending a pattern in some parents to protect their child, overtly. They strive so much to ensure their children have a happy childhood (protecting them from all the bad things people can and will do to us) that they end up leading them towards the unhappy adulthood. The thing they were trying to prevent all along.

Paul Bohn, a psychiatrist at UCLA who came to speak at [Lori Gottlieb’s] clinic, says the answer may be yes. Based on what he sees in his practice, Bohn believes many parents will do anything to avoid having their kids experience even mild discomfort, anxiety, or disappointment—“anything less than pleasant,” as he puts it—with the result that when, as adults, they experience the normal frustrations of life, they think something must be terribly wrong.

David Richo, a Santa Barbara self-help guru describes adults needing 5 As: attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing. As children, we receive these needs solely from our parents. Gottlieb argues that with this fear of unhappy adult children pervading, we continue to coddle our children offering them these needs well past the point where they should be seeking attention, acceptance, appreciation, affection, and allowing from more diverse sources.

Sure, we screw up as parents. We’re bound to. We can’t be perfect, so we can’t expect our kids to be perfect. Of all the varied parenting styles I’ve seen exhibited from those close to me and afar, we all, again, have one thing in common. We want our kids to be fairly well adjusted relatively happy adults. I define this happiness as being more or less okay with their lives at any given point. In the thick of it, right now, though, I often feel guilty about not doing enough or doing more. Gottlieb explains this choice point as parents when faced with work.

Long work hours don’t help. “If you’ve got 20 minutes a day to spend with your kid,” [Dan] Kindlon asked, “would you rather make your kid mad at you by arguing over cleaning up his room, or play a game of Boggle together? We don’t set limits, because we want our kids to like us at every moment, even though it’s better for them if sometimes they can’t stand us.”

I know I do this. I let things go so it’s not a fight. I question, what is the point, while in the back of my mind I feel like I should be helping him to set better patterns and habits in simply the name of cleanliness. But, I negotiate the terms with forecasted memories. I want Levi to remember having a more or less happy childhood where Peter and I were there for him giving him enough freedom to explore. Yet, at the same time, I have my own agenda of items I want to accomplish so I can continue on my own freedom to explore for my own life. Sometimes the book together is more important than cleaning up legos. I even give choices to that affect. Like tonight, when Levi wanted to play his Cat in the Hat puzzle while I was reading him the Cat in the Hat. I said no. Choose legos or the puzzle, but not both. He negotiated rooms, and eventually opened the puzzle box in his room when I wasn’t looking and the book had long since been finished. I told him to pick it up, and he did, without arguing.

I had given him a choice. Legos or puzzle. That is pick up the legos before you make another big mess. We’ve long since abandoned any meaning ritual of nightly “clean up the toys” as parents opting for the ebb and flow clean up moments. We let Levi choose books to read. Sometimes the clothes he wears. And, depending on the day, I even let him choose his lunch or dinner. Gottlieb explains this over-choice point pas parents — when we give our kids too many choices.

As a parent, I’m all too familiar with this. I never said to my son, “Here’s your grilled-cheese sandwich.” I’d say, “Do you want the grilled cheese or the fish sticks?” On a Saturday, I’d say, “Do you want to go to the park or the beach?” Sometimes, if my preschooler was having a meltdown over the fact that we had to go to the grocery store, instead of swooping him up and wrestling him into the car, I’d give him a choice: “Do you want to go to Trader Joe’s or Ralphs?” (Once we got to the market, it was “Do you want the vanilla yogurt or the peach?”) But after I’d set up this paradigm, we couldn’t do anything unless he had a choice. One day when I said to him, “Please put your shoes on, we’re going to Trader Joe’s,” he replied matter-of-factly: “What are my other choices?” I told him there were no other choices—we needed something from Trader Joe’s. “But it’s not fair if I don’t get to decide too!” he pleaded ingenuously. He’d come to expect unlimited choice.

As with most paradigm shifts, I see the change where more parents result in the wrestling, and then we see each other and look upon the other with sympathy and understanding. “I’ve been there. I’m sorry. Good job parent!”

I had a chiropractor appointment Wednesday. I had to go to the chiropractor for me. I needed myself fixed so I could operate. I did not have time to negotiate. So, I swooped Levi up. I did not give him the chance to coddle. I did not give him the chance to wake up from his nap. His teacher tried. I tried. The coddling didn’t work. So, I packed his bag. I put his things away. I picked him up, kicking and screaming, reinforcing why I was going to the chiropractor. On the way out, I murmured this is why we’re late in the morning. We’re late because I coddle and I do for my son when he is perfectly capable of doing for himself.

Why am I so afraid to let my anger and irritation show? Why is it all about our kids and their feelings and not so much about ours as parents? We all want some vision of happiness. The paradigm, I hope is shifting to the remembrance that it’s about a pursuit, a journey, and not an end stage. Sometimes we’re fabulous. Sometimes we’re mediocre. But, in the end, Everybody’s Fine.

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