Culture At Large

Can kids be too happy?

Amy Adair

My kids will end up in therapy. That’s according to a recent Atlantic article by Lori Gottlieb, a mother and a clinical psychologist. It’s not that my husband and I are totally out of touch with our kids. Our home is relatively peaceful and I spend my days insuring my kids are happy. Yet according to Gottlieb, that is exactly the problem. We are too attuned to our kids.

Gottlieb writes about one of her 20-something patients who had a happy childhood, went on to a great career and had meaningful friendships. By outward appearances everything was perfect. But something was missing: she wasn’t happy. Gottlieb blames the young woman’s lack of happiness on a childhood that was too happy. Today, she says, parents coddle their kids, heap praises on them incessantly and try to protect them from any sort of pain or disappointment. This false sense of happiness has even crept into sports: to avoid the specter of losing, many leagues have done away with keeping score so everyone goes home, well, happy. At the end of the season every kid gets a trophy, whether they deserved one or not.

Kids grow up with inflated self-esteem and are shocked in adulthood to learn that not only are they not as amazing as their parents told them, but there are indeed winners and losers. Not everyone gets the job or promotion. Not everyone gets along. And there is real heartache. Wouldn’t it be better, Gottlieb asks, if kids learned how to deal with disappointment in childhood rather than be shocked by it in adulthood?

I’ll admit it: I am sure Gottlieb would say I am guilty of trying to make my kids happy. I praise them often. And I shuttle them around from sports to play dates. I’ve been known to run forgotten homework and even a missing snow boot to school so my kid wouldn’t be in trouble with their teacher or miss recess on a beautiful winter day. If I can offer my kids a little grace, and if in turn it makes them happy, why wouldn’t I?

Gottlieb might say that is setting them up for an unhappy adulthood.

But what Gottlieb is missing - and I dare say her 20-something patient is as well - is spiritual fulfillment. Not happiness, but joy. There is a significant difference. I realize my kids will face heartache and disappointment. But I don’t want them to measure the quality of their lives by a worldly happiness scale. All the money in the world, a fulfilling career and amazing friends will never be enough to satisfy them - something will always be missing. True peace and fulfillment, not happiness, is only found through a relationship with Christ. Happiness, like the satisfaction of finding that missing boot right before recess, is a fleeting emotion. Joy is a lasting state that can be found in even the darkest of places.

Instead of worrying about how happy our kids are, we should be committed to helping our kids desire a real and sustaining relationship with Christ. Dare I say, long-term happiness is nearly impossible. Life is unfair, people get sick, disasters strike. There will be bad days. And there is no Biblical promise that followers of Christ will have happier and easier lives than non-Christians. In fact, James 1:2-4 says we should “Consider it pure joy … whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” Likewise, Paul tells his readers in Philippians 4:12 that “[he has] learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.”

This is, at once, both the simplest truth and the greatest mystery we must teach our children: to walk away from the fleeting trappings of happiness this world offers and yearn for the joy we can only find in God. When I look back at the times I felt most connected to God, when I could literally feel his presence, they were some of the darkest hours of my life. But they were also some of the most fulfilling times spiritually. When I’m happy and things seem to be going my way, I don’t lean on and depend on God like I do in difficult situations. My kids have seen this over and over again: when their Grandpa was hospitalized for a six-way bypass; with the unexpected death of a loved-one; and when our youngest child needed surgery. There was indeed joy in the darkness.

I do think Gottlieb has a point, though. Kids shouldn’t be protected from everything. They should know what it feels like to lose a game. They should learn how to work things out among themselves before parents step in. And they should feel disappointment. Despite all of our efforts to the contrary, life will, quite naturally, provide all those experiences for them.

I know my children will experience challenges and disappointments. That’s why I want my home to be a soft place for my kids to fall. A retreat from the hardships of life. And, yes, even a happy and joyful place. If I am attuned to their needs and struggles, I can help them process their experiences. And, most importantly, I can live and model the difference between fleeting happiness and the joy of the peace that passes all understanding. It is my hope and prayer that my children will make these lessons their own and grow into healthy, independent, joyful adults.

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