Should Happiness Be The Goal?

It can be so tempting to hope our kids are happy and to create an environment with a goal of fostering happiness in our children. It seems reasonable, right? Everyone wants their kids to be happy. My husband and I talk about this topic a lot. We find such joy in seeing our children squeal merrily as they play. I had been meaning to write about happiness when a post crossed my Facebook feed and I realized the right time had come.

In order to foster our children’s good mental health, we have to become comfortable (or at the very least, intentionally coexist) with their range of emotions. Children need to know that feeling sad, angry, defeated, and furious is all part of an appropriate, completely human experience. Many of us find holding space for these emotions difficult, because we were never afforded the same respect and grace by our own parents. That learning curve can be steep. It may even be made more difficult as we work to reparent ourselves and embrace all the ways we feel about any given situation. Emotions are crucial barometers for how we feel, but they are completely subjective. They can change over time and even in the present depending on how hungry we are! Hangriness is completely real. Let me tell you…

So, if we aren’t explicitly fostering happiness and are instead working toward helping our children avoid floundering as they experience their big emotions, what else can we do to support this kind of growth? I have an answer for this that comes from my own upbringing of all places. As a child, the adults around me drilled into my head the importance of finding “peace in the Lord.” I couldn’t fathom what that meant, at the time, because I had no peace at all. My childhood was chaotic, scary, and unpredictable. I was an Autistic child who didn’t know I was Autistic. As such, I was left to fend for myself from a desperately young age without understanding what my true needs were. Preaching peace is a lot different from experiencing peace.

What is peace anyway? The way I experience it as an adult is as a stable grounding no matter what kind of storm is happening in my mind. It’s fragile though. I can lose the peace and descend into the realm of despair and suicidality quick as a wink. I have to be incredibly intentional to acknowledge the crashing waves of emotion and then let them recede into calm. I got here through many years of many different kinds of therapies. Altogether, the therapists taught me how to cope and how to remain grounded even as my mind started to dysregulate. My husband could tell stories about how different I am now than I was when we first got married. I was explosive, unstable, and driven by my emotions in a way that verged on abusiveness toward those around me. Whatever “calm” people saw from me on the outside was mostly a series of shutdowns and a lot of freezing as a trauma response. I wavered between being completely reserved and roaring at people in anguish.

These many years later, I have found my source of peace through prayer and meditation. I’m further helped by taking medication that decreases the impact of anxiety. I’m never doing great, but I’m okay most of the time. I can only imagine who I might have been without the spanking, slapping, yelling, mocking, and the rest of the oppressive childism I experienced. While emotions do carry me away sometimes still, I have a place to return to, deep in my being, that reminds me who I am.

And, that is also what I hope for my children. I want them to build for themselves an unshakeable sense of self that is impermeable to the whims of a racist, classist, sexist, and ableist culture that wants to try to mold them into the most consumable people they can be. So, I bear with them through their emotions. I draw them close when they are feeling their worst. And, in the process, I find that they are even better than I am at identifying what makes them happy and seeking it out in a nonjudgmental way. They don’t seek happiness as a reward for success. To them, happiness is just a pleasant way to regard the experiences they encounter in life. It’s not an emotional high they compulsively pursue.

If you share similar desires for your children to be at peace no matter what is happening around them, keep these tips in mind:

  1. Help your children wind down and be still by spending time in nature, watching the wind blow through the trees and the little ants dutifully storing away their food.
  2. Accept all emotions in any form they come by guarding your child in a safe space even if they need to thrash and move to get the feelings out.
  3. Find ways for your children to address the needs they see in the world. Let them “be the change” so that they know hope is real.
  4. Honor your children’s agency and autonomy, and accept that they are your equals in humanity and rights, even as they may not have the life experience needed to make the wisest decisions about how they exercise their freedoms.
  5. Model self-care and healthy boundaries. Children learn what to expect from others by watching what we do.
  6. Be intentional with your language. Examine how you speak to your children. Do you praise them based on your expectations rather than affirming their own decisions? Do you use the dreaded “but” with them that negates anything you say thereafter? Do you tell them what not to do instead of telling them what to do?
  7. Speak respectfully about yourself too. Reject diet culture and embrace your body the way it is. Celebrate yourself for the accomplishments that make you proud. Avoid using negative (typically ableist) language like calling yourself st*pid.

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