Parenting fifty years ago was a lot different than it is today. And despite all our advances—the fancy strollers, the baby monitors, disposable diapers—I daresay it was a heck of a lot easier back then.
You worried about your children—that they ate their vegetables, that they got good grades, that they didn’t lie, cheat, or steal, that they stayed off of drugs. While those basic principles haven’t changed much, today’s parents have a slew of other worries burdening them. Nowadays, you have to worry about whether your child has enough self-esteem, enough self-awareness, enough happiness. Noble goals, indeed. But is that really supposed to be our ultimate goal as parents? To make sure our kids are happy and well-adjusted?
I’ve come to believe it’s not, that being happy and confident are tools we should give our children, but that those are not the end objectives. And Richard Weissbourd, a Harvard psychologist, agrees. In an essay he wrote for the New York Times feature, “Motherlode: Adventures in Parenting” (April 11, 2011), Dr. Weissbourd bemoans the uniquely American culture of parenting that focuses on a child’s feelings at the expense of teaching them basic morality. He conducted research into the values and priorities that students and their parents had and found that “two-thirds of children considered happiness more important than ‘being a good person who cares about others’”, while roughly the same number “believed that it was more important to their parents that they were happy than that they were good.”
He goes on further to say that parents aren’t intending to raise such self-centered progeny; rather, their thought process is that being happy will lead to wanting to do good. Unfortunately, that’s a reversal of logic. As C.S. Lewis once said, “Safety and happiness can only come from individuals, classes, and nations being honest and fair and kind to each other.” Not the other way around.
If your number one goal in life is to be happy, then common sense would dictate that your actions will be geared towards your own feelings. Helping others, contributing to the greater good, isn’t always the easiest way to get a high. In fact, making moral choices often means making the hard choice, taking the path that would lead you away from that which would keep you happy. Let’s say you just found $20 in your jeans pocket that you forgot you had. What would make you happier—to spend it on that new CD you’ve been coveting, or to put it in the poor box at church? What would make you happier—getting an extra hour or two of sleep on a Saturday morning, or rising an hour or two earlier to help out at the food bank downtown? We can’t fault our children for choosing their happiness over the greater good if that is how we have raised them.
Promoting social good is a worthy and admirable cause that I firmly believe in. Everyone has the power to make a difference, and each small step we take towards that greater good is a huge victory in the battle to change the world for the better. But if we really want to change the world, we must start with ourselves and our children. Instead of relying on the parenting “experts” that tell us we have to focus on our children’s self-esteem, that a happy child is the reward for good parenting, we need to get back to basics and trust our instincts. Like it or not, we parents have a responsibility not just to our family, but to all society, to raise children who will improve upon this world. To really push social change, we shouldn’t only start with our communities. We should start within our own families.