What’s the Goal of Parenting?
by Lindsey R. Gilbert, President and Head of School
Every one of these experiences was related to me by a parent:
One mother confided, “I was a lonely, depressed child, to compensate, I wanted a different childhood experience for my sons. My husband is always on me because I’m constantly rescuing my children. I don’t make them clean their rooms, do chores or earn their own money. Am I hurting them? All I want is for them to be happier than I was.”
“My son should be happier. He has everything he needs and wants, yet he is bothered by every small difficulty.”
“My daughter worries constantly about the world’s problems. Poverty, war, injustice – all make her sad. She loses sleep over global issues.”
Menaul School partners with families in a way unique in our community to help build great human beings.
Much of what we hear from modern society tells us that the ultimate goal of parents is to create “happy” people. We see mental illness, anxiety, depression, emotional fragility on the rise. Part of that is positive and due to the increase in our acceptance of discussing issues that have always existed openly, but that’s not the whole story. We’re less connected to other humans than ever before. People report having fewer close friends. More and more people live alone. The number of people we report we can trust with a secret has decreased, on average, to less than one.
That’s an amazing statistic. Americans on average don’t have even one person they would trust with a secret. All of this lack of trust causes anxiety, which predisposes us to all other kinds of social ills. Depression, substance abuse, political extremism, to name a few. We’re all aware that our children are growing up in a generation that is less happy and less socially connected than any before it – is it any wonder we’re obsessed with making them happy?
I’ll quote Becky Kennedy, a New Times Parent guru and author of “Good Inside.” She’s got some practical information that I will expand on:
Do I want my kids to be happy? Sure! Of course! And yet, I don’t think happiness is what these parents are really talking about. I think there’s something much deeper going on.
Consider this: what leads to happiness?
Does eradication of our kids’ worry and loneliness and ensuring they feel good at all times enable them to cultivate happiness on their own? What do we really mean when we say, “I just want my kids to be happy”? What are we talking about when we say, “Cheer up!” or “You have so much to be happy about!” or “Why can’t you just be happy?” I, for one, don’t think we’re talking about cultivating happiness as much as we’re talking about avoiding fear and distress.
Because when we focus on happiness, we ignore all the other emotions that will inevitably come up throughout our kids’ lives. We aren’t teaching them how to cope with those emotions. And, again, how we teach our kids through our interactions with them – to relate to pain and hardship will impact how they think about themselves and their troubles for decades to come.
How do we help our children cope with these difficult emotions?
We know they will fail because we’ve failed. They will be rejected, betrayed by people they considered their closest friends, because we’ve felt that sting. They will struggle because struggle is the story of human existence.
Does protecting them from these experiences turn them into happy people, or does it hobble their ability to confront the challenges we know they will face?
We help our children by refocusing our goals, individually and collectively. We say out loud that we’re not setting out to build happy people. Our ultimate goal is to build productive and well-adjusted citizens who live good lives and repeat that process generation after generation.
Happiness is found in that process of struggling through our shared human experiences, and then rising beyond those challenges – wiser, stronger, and prepared for whatever comes next. Angela Duckworth, in a brilliant book on how to raise great people, called it “grit”. Through data, she showed that “grit” was more important than intelligence, good looks or academic achievement for long lasting success.
The word we used last century was self-esteem.
We know that self-esteem is built as people overcome challenges, not because someone tells them that they are smart, pretty or athletic. Each person must overcome those challenges to thrive. Winston Churchill, whose iron will helped win WWII, said, “Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.”
Laurie and I have five incredible children. The older four have good jobs, secure marriages, growing families, and master’s degrees. Our youngest is still in process of building this good life. What did we do? Most importantly, we were intentional about their experiences and deliberately counter cultural.
Below is part of the roadmap for helping to build happy, resilient children. We did not smooth the way for them but instead put them in challenging situations where they could practice overcoming obstacles. When they fell off the horse, we wiped away a tear, praised their hard work, and helped them get back on again.
Priorities: Our priorities were God, family, school, fun, and loving the people around us. Compare that to our society’s priorities: entertainment, painful individuality, superficial beauty, empty wealth.
Friend Central: We were happy to have our children’s friends at our home.
We fed them, let them stay over and connected with their parents. Twenty teens in our basement on a Friday night was a delight for us despite the loss of sleep, because we knew that they were in a safe place and that our values would be supported at our home.
Vacations: Our vacations were normally active; our one-week backpacking trips each summer in Colorado and Utah were the highlights for all of us. One week with no phones or TV built deep trust in each other and laid down memories for a lifetime. Our other trips were to visit family, camp, hike, hunt or ski. We did not go to posh resorts. Instead, we learned new skills that built confidence.
We also allowed each of our children to have a solo international experience. Amanda went to Canada with two sisters who were dear classmates, Missy went to Cambridge to study, Beca went to Kenya with one of her boarding school classmates, and Lindy played soccer on a Brazilian soccer club for three weeks in San Paulo.
At Home: We lived without television and internet, especially during school days.
Instead, we read books and played games. A movie was watched together as a family, not every member departing to their own rooms to watch their own devices. We insisted on academic achievement before playing sports or socializing. Our children were blessed to attend good private schools for high school where their peers were most often achievers with their own life goals. We also attended church regularly as a family and gave them the opportunity to participate in summer church camps.
I apologize for bragging, but the data is clear, and our child rearing experience proved it out.
While we were blessed with resources and opportunities that others may not have had, we’ve also had less than many. These values aren’t dependent on wealth, they’re dependent on being intentional about building a family that gives children opportunities to succeed. These might be called “traditional American family values”, but they’re the same values found in families across the world. An intact family which supports and challenges their children is most likely to build resilient and happy human beings who will live productive lives and form their own successful families.
That’s a lesson which crosses cultures, one which is truly World Smart, even if it’s not the lesson we’re hearing on cable news or Twitter. So turn off the computer and put the iPhone on airplane mode. Grab your kids and prepare a family dinner together. Play a game you haven’t played in years. Try a dozen topics of conversation until you find one where they start talking. Sit and read while they do their homework at the table with you, be that gentle presence for them. It won’t happen overnight, but change happens in slow and steady increments. They may express they are less “happy” with this. You know better.
How refreshing to hear that your choices to raise your kids counter culturally paid off. Thank you for your words of encouragement!