We all want happiness for our children and the children of others.
As a pediatrician my job has often been to help assess well-being and contentment in my patients. Yet it is so difficult to quantify and measure. Is it all in the eyes of the beholder?
My parents divorced when I was 9. My father suffered from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress disorder as a consequence of the early deficient nurturing and his experience in World War II. This is my interpretation from the lens of a son many years after his death. To fill the void left by my father’s exit, my mother tried incredibly hard to provide for her sons (my older brother and me) in every way she knew possible. We were a family of some financial means, but my mother still struggled with inconsistent emotional support from her family. A veritable “heart-of-gold” woman, she was the ultimate helper to everyone she met. But was she happy? Was she able to instill happiness in me?
As my mother led me into my second decade of life, I remember the fairly constant refrain of “I just want you to be happy, Bob.” I was always aware that she felt guilty that her two sons were having to live with a family split—and unfortunately with the less than optimal support from her own mother, I think she felt some responsibility for the family split and its effect on her children. In that regard, it seems logical that she would want her children to be happy. Yet, fortunately, I followed her example, not her words.
Wait, what do I mean that I followed her example? My mother was one of those people that was always seeking ways to help others. She recognized her responsibility to others and sought solutions. The less fortunate and those hurting were often the recipients of her generosity. Her generosity varied from material goods (money or gifts or food) to a caring spirit and a helping hand. She understood that generosity has many forms. She understood that how she lived her life (her example) was her primary mode of education to us. And I think I excelled.
So, let me take a controversial stand.
I do not think that the primary goal of parenting is the happiness of our children.
Let me take a controversial stand. I do not think that the primary goal of parenting is the happiness of our children. Click To Tweet
I think the primary goal of parenting is to raise our children to be good citizens. Good people that care for others. Good people that care about others. Good people that practice empathy by seeking an active understanding of others to be engaged with them in their life’s journey. And then, happiness will be a blissful secondary side effect. To quote an author I know –
Children might be “happy” when they get that prized Christmas present, that new bike or the keys to the car for the first time. They might be “happy” when they get to watch their favorite TV show. But I contend that real happiness will come when they realize as young adults or older adults that the ability to serve others can improve their own lives, the lives of their fellow citizens and their communities.1
I recognize several potential arguments to my stand –
- It is naïve to make such a blanket statement when we live in such a diverse society with so many that struggle in their day-to-day lives. I realize that many folks struggle, but I still think that people can care for and care about others to the best of their abilities, and that it is our job to help empower/enable them to do so. Folks that truly struggle and cannot do better should be the recipient of our generosity so that someday they can pay it forward.
- Happiness should not be a side effect but a primary goal. Well, I disagree. We were placed on Earth for a purpose and regardless of our faith (or the lack thereof) that purpose is to care for each other and to care about each other. Time and time again, we witness the generosity of others, and we applaud it. Tears well up in our eyes when we hear the stories. I contend that those are tears of happiness and demonstrate our innate abilities to care for each other and the joy realized from such.
- It just cannot be done. Again, I disagree. Goals in life should be aspirational, always seeking to improve our lives, the lives of others and the life of our communities. Doing things to the best of our abilities is all that is needed. The scope of being a good citizen is broad – from active assistance to trash pickup to reading about current events to voting. Engagement in some form is the key, understanding our responsibility to each other. For example, complaining about some community service (or the lack thereof) should be replaced with proposals to correct the issues and when necessary to vote on people that will be advocates for one’s position.
- Happiness should be in the eye of the beholder. Well, one more time, I disagree. Such a view has led to the “me first” movement whereby folks feel entitled to do whatever they want since “it is a free country.” It is only a free country because of the sacrifice of so many and we cannot lose sight of that. I think happiness will be reimagined when we look beyond ourselves.
The “me first” movement has led to the “us vs. them” philosophy that too often pervades our society. This selfish approach doesn’t serve others well and only serves to polarize our society. I have previously noted 12 words that have become my mantra over the last 30 years – “I am the problem, I am the solution, I am the resource.”2 They remind us that any problems should be shared, that we need to be active participants in the solutions, and to do that, we need to devote our resources to it. It is incumbent on us to adopt a philosophy that “we are the problem, we are the solution, we are the resource.”
By changing the pronoun to ‘we,’ we can seek the common good, see the joy that we can bring to others and realize meaningful happiness. As a pediatrician and a parent, I contend that good citizens are happy – and that the side effects in this circumstance are a blessing to be embraced. Such a philosophy and approach to life can only enhance our lives and the lives of others.
President Obama said it so well in his eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney who was gunned down along with 8 parishioners in June 2015. This excerpt notes “[Our calling]…is the idea that our Christian faith demands deeds and not just words; that the ‘sweet hour of prayer’ actually lasts the whole week long; that to put our faith in action is about more than our individual salvation, but about our collective salvation; that to feed the hungry and clothe the naked and house the homeless is not merely a call for isolated charity but the imperative for a just society.”3
Caring for each other is the hallmark of caring citizens…and the path to happiness. What a beautiful trail to lead our children down.
- Saul RA. Conscious Parenting: Using the Parental Awareness Threshold. Koehler Books, 78 pp. 2020. (page 19)
- Saul RA. My Children’s Children: Raising Young Citizens in the Age of Columbine. CreateSpace, 225 pp. 2013. (page 5)
- Keenan C. Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America. Mariner Books, 309 pp. 2022. (page 295)