A quick follow-up to last week’s post on teaching our kids to be grateful – turns out gratitude can actually improve our health.
This Huffington Post article offers some encouraging revelations, based on published studies, including lower rates of depression, increased levels of exercise, happier relationships, increased goodwill to others, more sleep, satisfaction with their lives and general optimism.
Turns out just going through the seemingly hokey exercise of daily writing down several things in your life for which you feel grateful can be enough to change your outlook. Perhaps it’s worth trying this out with kids who seem to have trouble appreciating what they’ve got, or who display disturbing levels of entitlement. The eye-rolling will be epic; the groans will be earth-shattering, but you don’t have much to lose.
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.
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.
Thinking a lot about transitions lately. Kids starting high school. Friends and family members sending their little ones off to kindergarten for the first time. Everyone dealing with change in their own particular ways, sometimes with sentiment, sometimes with stoicism.
There’s a particular kind of energy at the start of the school year. Maybe it’s the new shoes, freshly pressed uniforms, shiny new notebooks and clean lunchboxes. No one has been overloaded with homework yet, or received a low mark on a test, or forgotten an assignment. Teachers are still rested from their summer breaks, exercising patience in the face of disruption or sloth. Students are still trying hard to fit in, follow the rules, organize all those lovely new binders and stiff-tipped markers. Taking the bus home is still a novelty, not a chore.
But these changes also bring a kind of stress with them, particularly the ones that involve new schools, new routines, new friends. Students can find it exhausting to hold it together all day, and then fall apart a bit at home at the end of the day, where they feel safe. Parents are trying to deal with their own issues, whether they are work-related or the bittersweet business of watching your child grow up just a little bit more.
Which explains why they might burst into tears if you ask them whether they’ve decided to try out for the school basketball team. Or why they stomp off in a huff if you suggest their skirt might be a bit short.
As parents it can be hard not to mix our own emotions about the milestones in our children’s lives. We try to stay on an even keel emotionally, exercise logic where they cannot. But when they show their unhappiness, their worry or stress, it’s hard to stay rational. My aunt once told me that parents are only as happy as their least happy child, and I believe that is mostly true.
Parents said that the distress of one child makes them empathize with their problems, question their parenting ability, place excessive demands on their child, or cause strain in the family’s relationships. They also found that the success of one child isn’t enough to overshadow the problems of another – people don’t just write the problems off as a fluke, but tend to focus in one them.
They also found that having more than one child can make parents happier – provided no one is dealing with any substantive problems. In which case, the parents are more miserable. Child successes didn’t have to be major either – just being generally happy personally and professionally was enough.
So what does this mean for us as parents of teens? On the one hand, it’s important to recognize our kids’ emotional responses to things are partly the result of biology, and not necessarily accurate gauges for their overall happiness. On the other hand, it means we need to maintain open links of communication with them, to help them negotiate any real problems or issues in their lives. And finally, it means we have to help them — and us — focus on the things that make us happy: a hobby, a friend, a sport, a new skill acquired.
Not always easy to do, but worth remembering. Because when the new shoes are scuffed, and the new notebooks are dog-eared and covered in doodles, we need to reach back and hold on to the enthusiasm and energy of these first bright days.
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