Parenting Beyond Happiness

Ask most parents what they most hope for their child, and one of the immediate answers will be that we want our children to be happy. Sometimes that’s intensified, as in, “While I hope they find a good job and lead a good life, all I really want is for my child is happy.” That goal and desire, as Jennifer Senior explains, is so ingrained in current parenting culture that we don’t even question it. But maybe we should.

Just as we were willing to ask whether happiness is a goal or a by-product, so also might we question what the primary role, responsibility and goal of parenting is. Because if you believe that happiness is the by-product of living a good, moral, productive, worthwhile (add your own adjective) kind of life, then we should be raising our children to be moral, productive, creative, contributing people. Those are attainable goals. Happiness, though? Probably not. We cannot, that is, guarantee another’s happiness or make them happy or even set them up to be happy. But we can help them lead decent and moral and productive lives that we believe often have happiness as a by-product.

But just as we buy so many things hoping they make us happy, so also we read all kinds of parenting advice on how to help our children become happy. All of which makes Senior’s TED Talk very worth watching. In particular, I found her tracking of the shift of how we view children from economic contributors to companionable dependents really interesting. Also fascinating is her insight into how the “work” of childhood shifted over the last century from work on the farm or in the home that contributed to the economic wellbeing of the family to, first, school work to prepare them for a career and, later, to extra curricular activities that would make them happy.

Senior’s new book, All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, explores the modern dilemmas parents face. While this Talk won’t solve all of the problems she describes, it certainly gave me a lot to think about.

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