Commentary: Pursuit of happiness is no answer
SAN DIEGO -- I just want my kids to be happy.
This has become "a kind of sacred star in the galaxy of parenting wisdom," says child psychologist Aaron Cooper. It is a default dream, what Cooper calls the "fall-back wish" of parents for the lives they'd like their children to live. If kids can't always grow up to be successful, enlightened and benevolent people -- what grandpa referred to as "healthy, wealthy, and wise" -- then at least they can be happy.
As someone who has spent more than three decades working with children and families, Cooper has heard the happiness mantra over and over again.
Cooper noticed that the concept would pop up in parent-teacher conferences and open houses at elementary schools. He caught a glimpse of it when television psychologist Dr. Phil, during an appearance on "Larry King Live," asked the interviewer to define his hopes for his children, and King quickly responded: "That they be happy." Cooper also found a study where a group of psychologists traveled the world and asked parents to describe their fondest wish for their children, and the No. 1 answer was -- surprise -- happiness.
"It was assaulting me from every direction," he said. "And it got me thinking: What does this mean? What's the consequence of this concept in our children's lives?"
The search for answers led to Cooper's recent and important book with co-author Eric Keitel, "I Just Want My Kids To Be Happy! -- Why You Shouldn't Say It. Why You Shouldn't Think It. What You Should Embrace Instead."
One of the first things that Cooper wants us to understand is that this idea of obsessing over children's happiness is a new phenomenon. He insists that over the last 50 years, parents have channeled Thomas Jefferson and made "the pursuit of happiness" (for their children) the top parental goal.
"I know that my grandparents would never have said that happiness was most important thing," said Cooper, who is 57. "My parents, I don't think, would have said it either."
Some of this is about the popular and destructive trend of parents-as-best-friends and the fact that -- when their children are feeling blue -- today's parents seem to have such low tolerance that they give into every whim, demand or tantrum.
As to why things have changed, Cooper believes that to some degree, Americans are victims of their own success.
"As a great many families in our country have enjoyed a certain level of comfort and convenience and affluence, life has become a little bit easier in some of the practical ways," he said. "So the wish for parents isn't just for a good job or an education as a means to good job -- the wishes that our grandparents had back then. Now a lot of families and parents take that for granted so the emphasis has shifted to something less practical and less tangible, which is kind of a quality-of-life dimension that they wish for their child."
Cooper insists that the wish for happiness is reinforced through the consumer marketplace, which is selling "shortcuts to happiness ... a certain car, a certain vacation, a certain hair product." Not to mention a pharmaceutical industry that bombards us with television ads to convince us that the road to happiness, or at least the detour around sadness and depression, is by "popping the right pill."
Parenting is the most difficult and important job ever invented. You mess it up and society pays the price. We should give up on trying to make our kids happy and concentrate on raising children with good values, compassionate hearts, a mighty work ethic, respect for others and a willingness to take responsibility for their actions. We should teach them to follow their passion and strive to succeed, but to never forget that we learn a lot from failure. And much of the rest will fall into place.
Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.