It's Not Our Job to Make Them Happy

This morning I gave one of my children the option to stay home from school. He’s been under the weather and I thought a day in bed with some chicken soup would be just the thing. At first he agreed, snuggling back beneath his blankets, but a few minutes later I heard him brushing his teeth in the bathroom. “Today is my favorite day of school,” he said, and then went on to list all the great things that happen on Wednesdays.

This is relevant because last year the same child was begging to stay home from school, sick or well. It had been a rough year for various reasons, many his own doing, but I think we’ve made it to the other side. As I celebrated this quiet victory, I started thinking about our role as parents when our children are struggling.

Of course it’s gut wrenching to watch them struggle. Our instinct tells us to swoop in and make it better, to fix it. But is this always the right thing? When they face a challenge beyond their capacity to manage, it most certainly is our job to step in. Sometimes we have to take matters out of their hands and into our own. But, in my experience, this should be more the exception than the rule. 

We live in a culture of helicopter parents. When I googled the term to make sure I had it right, article after article appeared. The theme was clear. We’re a generation of parents who micromanage our kids’ lives. Consequently we’re creating a generation of kids with fewer life skills and an attitude of entitlement. I think we are doing them a grave disservice.

A recent example: My husband is Commissioner of the local flag football league. In general, it is a fantastic instructional league with levelheaded parents and a dedicated group of unpaid staff working to give the kids a positive experience. But you can’t imagine some of the emails he receives. After days of tryouts to create balanced teams, and numerous communications indicating that no team placement requests would be honored, parents nonetheless wrote to complain and request team placements. And the complaints went something like this, "Johnny can’t be on that team. None of his friends are on that team. You need to switch him.”

I think about the message these parents gave to their children. You are incapable of making new friends. Your needs outweigh those of everyone else in the league. You should avoid uncomfortable situations.

It actually feels crippling. But if we shouldn't always fix problems for our children, we have a responsibility to help them learn to do it for themselves. And maybe this is a more difficult task.

Back to the son who wanted to go to school today. Last year was rough, and he’d been the cause of some of the strife. Part of working through it meant taking responsibility for his actions and then making amends. My heart broke for him, but I couldn’t fix it for him.

What I could do was tell him I loved him no matter what, that I was right behind him every step of the way, and that his home and his family were a safe haven. I could remind him that doing the right thing mattered, even when it was hard. And I could, and would, send him to school to face the music.

As difficult as things were in the moment, he is better for having had the experience. He’s learned hard things don’t last forever. He’s learned he is brave and good, and he knows he is loved. He’s learned something real about hurt and forgiveness, and he understands everyone makes mistakes. 

It is not our job to remove all obstacles from our children’s lives. But it is our job to equip them with the skills they need to navigate the world and manage those obstacles. If they don’t face struggles, and successfully make their way through them, they won’t know how capable they are.

It is not our job to make our children happy, but it is our job to love, guide, support, and empower them, even when this is the more difficult task.