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Why you don’t need to make sure your teen is happy

Have you ever done any of the following things: driven your child’s forgotten homework to school? Brought them the lunch they neglected to pack themselves? Softened a well-deserved punishment because you felt bad for him/ her? Backtracked on promised consequences for poor behaviour or disrespect? Ignored a broken rule because you just didn’t want to get into an argument with them?

If so, you’re guilty of trying to make them happy. And you were almost certainly wrong.

At a school meeting last year, my daughters’ elementary school principal made a very compelling argument. She said that all parents want to make their kids happy, but they are often shortsighted. We don’t need them to necessarily be happy today. Or right now. Especially if they’ve done something wrong.

Instead, we need to take the long view. Ultimately, we want them to be happy adults: contented, well-adjusted people taking their rightful place in our communities. We want them to be reasonably successful in the career of their choice, surrounded by people with whom they belong and share love.

But right now? Today? This morning, when they realized they hadn’t pulled their school uniform top out of the dryer like you asked, and it was all wrinkled and they wanted you to iron it? When they left their gym uniform at home the day of soccer tryouts? When they started a fight with their little sister or asked you to buy them the really cool jeans that everyone is wearing, even though it’s really not in the budget?

They don’t need that kind of happy. You are, in fact, doing them a long-term disservice by saving their butts, hovering over and rescuing them, swooping in to cover responsibilities that should rightly be their own. Protecting them from negative consequences to their own actions. Ignoring rude, disrespectful or anti-social behaviour. Spoiling them with consumer items they don’t really need, especially if they cause financial strain. If you never say “no.”

That’s not real happy anyway (though you could be forgiven for thinking it is when their eyes light up at the sight of those jeans or hand-delivered homework). It’s not the kind of lasting, grounded happiness that they will want as adults. The kind of well-earned, well-deserved happiness that comes from knowing your responsibilities.

What’s more, these attempts to make them happy all the time now when they are younger, is more likely to work against what should be your ultimate goal: turning them into happy, responsible, capable adults. To do that, they need to learn some hard, cause and effect lessons when they are young.

Western culture defines happiness in curious ways, usually around acquisition and consumption of goods, ease of living, always having to “feel good.” But the science of happiness (yes, there is such a thing) tells us that happiness is an innate quality, a way of looking at the world, generally independent of the things around us (with the exception of extreme poverty and deprivation). The most important correlates for happy people were close ties with friends and/or family. A study of lottery winners and accident victims left paralyzed found that, while both groups experienced temporary swings in their levels of happiness based on their dramatic change of circumstances, within a few months both groups returned to their baseline levels of happiness.

We need to resist the constant pressure to be happy at all costs. Another interesting piece of research suggests that the constant emphasis on needing to feel good is a risk factor for drug and alcohol addiction among teens. Behaviours like drug use, drinking alcohol, sex and gambling have a chemical payoff, at least in the short-term. But they quickly need more and more of whatever it is to get the same high, and therein lies the dark spiral of addiction.

So even though it can be really hard as a parent to imagine your kid missing lunch at school, getting in trouble for not having their homework, or missing a night out with friends because their behaviour at the family dinner table was inexcusable, you are actually doing them a tremendous favour.

Steel your resolve. That unhappy teenager may well thank you for it in 20 years.

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