I Just Want My Children To Be Happy
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.”
We all want our children to be happy. We don’t like it when they cry or feel disappointed. Some of us are uncomfortable if our child is angry with us when we try to set limits and we give in so they will be happy. Many parents do not know what to do when they want to or need to say “No,” but they know that their child will cry, melt down or lash out. And many are compelled by this overwhelming desire that their children are happy—all of the time.
The problem is that happiness really only comes through a process of hard work, from learning something and changing ourselves, from losing something and then recognizing how blessed we are with what we have, from facing disappointment and realizing that we will be fine, and from giving of ourselves to help others do better. In truth, happiness in the long run almost always requires a lot of unhappiness and sacrifice along the way.
“It's so hard to forget pain, but it's even harder to remember sweetness.
We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.”
Chuck Palahniuk, Diary
When we parent, the struggle is real. We want to be happy, and we have a mistaken sense that if our child is not happy, we cannot be happy either. For some parents it is hard to say, “No.” It feels bad to say, “That doll is beautiful. I love the color of her dress, and you can save your money and buy her if you like, (but we are not buying her today.)” It is difficult to stand firm when the time is up rather than saying “Okay. How about another 10 minutes?” We don’t like to say, “Stop that right now. It is not respectful.” And we weary of constantly reminding our children to say, “please,” and, “thank you.”
But take a look around at well-behaved children and those are the things you will hear their parents saying without regret and with confidence and kindness. These parents respectfully set limits, often inviting their children to be unhappy temporarily, and the payoff is happiness, confidence, competence, the ability to delay gratification and a life of gratitude and purpose. These parents are kind and firm at the same time. Sometimes the parents are more firm than kind and other times more kind than firm, but they have no problem setting limits with love. The security this provides to their children is the essence of all later attributes.
The Queen Grants You Permission!
I am the queen and I am hereby giving all parents permission to set firm and kind limits with their children. You are granted the queen’s admonition to say, “No,” and mean it, and to tickle their stomachs as you laughingly carry them to the bathtub upside down when they want to continue playing Legos. I grant you the royal power to stand your ground, say it once, lovingly take them by the hand and lead them to the thing you asked them to do, and then hug them and say, “I love you and I know you can tackle this!”
You have my decree that when it is time to leave the park, you may call them to you and as you gather your things and walk toward the car you may remain silent and not respond at all to their requests to wait, stay longer, to look at them or any other thing that will distract you from leaving (within reason☺).
It is OKAY if they cry!
Disappointment and frustration in young childhood are the experiences they need to master and learn to cope with in order to become happy adults! Muscles develop when we use them. Allow your children to experience a variety of emotions fully and then learn that they can recover from their very powerful feelings. The situations that will elicit these emotions are inherent in early childhood. You need not go out of your way to create them!
As in Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, Max is completely out of control after being sent to his bedroom, but he is allowed to fully experience his frustration, anger and grief and then he is able to regain control and regulate his emotions. He begins to recognize that he has the power to feel better again and that he prefers the safety and love found in “…his very own room.” When we prevent children from this level of distress we do not prepare them for their future interactions with the world in which they will live. We are not preparing them for lives of happiness. They will be horrific, ungrateful, entitled and poorly mannered adolescents and terrified, tyrannical, confused adults who think they should get everything they want and they will blame others and throw tantrums when they don’t get it. They will certainly not be happy and neither will the people around them.
Trying to prevent and settle tantrums by making children happy in early childhood only delays the tantrums until children are older and much more obnoxious and the struggles are much more problematic.
Here are parent behaviors to avoid to help our children grow those disappointment muscles when they are young.
1. Avoid negotiating with them. Once you have stated the limit or expectation, it is not time to negotiate. If you are going to negotiate, do it before you set the limit or state the behavior you want. For example: “It is time for your bath.” Your child responds, “Oh, I don’t want to stop. I’m building a castle. How about 5 more minutes?” If you negotiate now, you are teaching them that you don’t mean what you say. Your response can simply be, “That is a great castle! You will have time to play with it tomorrow,” as you pick her up or take her by the hand to the bathtub. No negotiating now! Negotiate another time before you state a limit or request.
2. Never say the same thing more than twice! No one likes to be nagged and no one listens to a nag. Do NOT keep telling them again and again expecting them to respond appropriately or differently. Young children simply do not have the emotional self-regulation to stop doing something they enjoy to do what you say. This is a learning process and you are the teacher! You, on the other hand, must stop what YOU are doing and respectfully guide, encourage and support your child in following through with the request. Never say the same thing more than twice! If you do, you are training your child to ignore you. When you do this in early childhood, instead of following through quickly, you actually train them to ignore you and then by the time they are in school, it has become a habit for both of you.
3. Do not try to convince a child to agree with you! Your children do not need to agree with you or be happy about what you have asked, or what you are doing next. This isn’t permission for you to be disrespectful or angry or hurtful to them, but it is your cue to stop talking and act quickly and kindly. It is fine for your child to disagree, have their own opinion, not want to do what you say and express that to you, but it is your job to simply love them and follow through firmly. You are an adult and your should be teaching them how to become an adult, with all of the respect, emotional regulation and maturity that requires. Immature expressions of disagreement may feel disrespectful, but you can teach your children to disagree respectfully by decoding and reflecting what they say in respectful terms. Of course, if you perceive any disagreement as disrespect, that is another matter and I recommend further exploration of yourself and your triggers. Teaching your child how to become respectful occurs best when you are respectful in the teaching process.
Immature expression or opinion: “Yuck, I don’t like that!”
Mature expression or opinion: “No thank you. I don’t care for any.”
Never try to tell them again, count to 3 (or any number) or threaten. Just smile and say, “You want to stay here and not go to the store. (validate) But we are leaving now, so I’ll help you get your shoes on and you can go get in the car.” (set limit) Remember, it is OK if they disagree with you or if they cry about it, if they are frustrated, mad, disappointed or any other feeling. Let them have their feelings and learn to manage them while you teach them right from wrong in respectful ways. Imagine what it would be like if all of the adults we know could recognize and manage their feelings and act respectfully and cooperatively anyway!
4. Do NOT tell them to stop crying, threaten them for crying, or give them something to make them stop crying! Let them cry so they can learn that crying doesn’t change your mind or your follow through. Let them know that it is acceptable to have feelings, even strong ones and name feelings for them so they can learn to talk instead of cry and scream. They may be sad, mad, upset, disappointed etc. It is important for them to learn about feelings and to cry about it! (Note: If your child’s crying invites powerful emotions in you that cause anxiety, reactivity or unhealthy reactions, seek understanding of yourself, your childhood and your pain.)
5. Do NOT offer them a concession, a bribe, a reward or threaten to punish them. It is important that your children, at a very young age, learn that you mean what you say and that in your family cooperation is important and that you love them. This is the root of the later moral development of obedience, which emerges around the age of eight. Your emotional regulation, your “kind and firm at the same time” respectful actions and your modeling for them that love is the best motivator is how you will invite cooperation, which later becomes obedience and cooperative collaboration.
The most important thing that children learn when we do these things is that our child’s very strong feelings do NOT cause us to react to them with very strong feelings or actions and that we love them anyway, no matter how they feel or act. They will learn from us that when people around them are very upset, they can remain calm, regulated and respectful. They will learn that even when others say potentially hurtful things, they can decode the situation and the words and understand what is really going on.
Relationships Lead Behavior
It is our relationship, our attitudes, our words and our actions with our children that teach them how to interact in the world. We teach them to be respectful and trusting when we behave in respectful and trusting ways.
The development of moral values begins in our families. As we help our children learn that they do not and cannot have everything they want, they learn to manage their desires. As we teach them to how to behave, how to accept and manage their feelings, how to recover from mistakes and disappointment, we are helping them mature and grow into the kind of people the world needs.
As we interact with them in loving ways that also teach them to work for what they need and want, to be grateful for what they have and to treat others with dignity and respect, they can develop the values we treasure and determine what they treasure. Obedience, aligning our actions with our values and acting out of love for those who set the rules, is an important element of happiness and integrity. It is not compliance without thought or reflection. It flows out of and into goodness, honesty, humility, love, charity and sacrifice. It is these attributes that result in happy children and happy parents, and it is the biggest job in the world. If we want our children to really be happy, we must deal with their unhappiness now.
Happiness comes from giving up what we want now, for what we want most.