“A little frustration never hurt anybody”
From the Sturdy Stuff newsletter by Keith McCurdy
Should I do what I can to make my child happy? It seems like a simple question, yet it is one that I often hear from parents. It’s almost like we are trained to have this “parental responsibility of happiness” mind-set from the time of our child’s birth. When a baby cries, we are told that they are either hot/cold, hungry, or sleepy. We immediately go into the “need-meeting” mode of parenting. As soon as we meet the need, they calm down and all is well. At this point, it is easy to confuse the notion of meeting needs and keeping our child happy. Meeting needs is one thing, eliminating frustration in our child’s lives is quite another.
In the first few years of life, there are very few needs that parents do not meet…Next, come the wants. Children, and many adults, have difficulty in distinguishing needs from wants, and have very similar emotional reactions to both. We, as parents, are not always successful at deciphering the cause of our child’s emotional discord and assume that if we are calming them down and keeping them happy, then we are meeting their needs.
Yes, this means that those who are over the top with spoiling their children may actually believe that they are doing the right thing. In fact, most of the parents that I have worked with over the last three decades with this issue, want the best for their kids and have a hard time coming to grips with the reality that what they have been doing is counterproductive. By eliminating our children’s frustrations whenever they occur, we are making it more difficult for our children to function in the teenage and adult world.
When we take on the responsibility of making our children happy, several negative messages begin growing in our children’s minds. The first is that there is something wrong with being upset or having negative emotions. This mindset can cause great confusion and frustration in a child. Children will have negative emotions; this will never stop.
When a child believes that these experiences are bad, yet continue to have them, they may begin to question themselves… even asking “What is wrong with me?” Another, even more problematic thought, is that emotions are more important than they really are and that being happy is necessary in life. Children, who are never allowed to suffer, have difficulty understanding that a person’s life can be just fine although they are not happy or satisfied in the moment.
When a person believes this, yet has a period of prolonged negative emotion, it can be devastating. It is interesting that with the thousands of suicidal teenagers I have known over the years, I can count on one hand the number that truly wanted to kill themselves. The majority wanted to kill how they were feeling. They did not know how to function in a state of emotional discord and they misinterpreted their negative emotions to mean that their lives were no good or not worth living. They had given too much importance to their emotions and had not learned how to effectively solve problems.
In response to these children, the work is to help them understand that their emotions are not always accurate indicators of either who they are or the quality of their life. This is then followed with helping to equip them to handle difficult emotions, a lesson that needs to be taught earlier in life.
It is vital that we allow our children to suffer, not always get what they want, hear NO, be upset, cry, etc. Our goal is not to keep them happy, but to equip them to handle all of their emotions. A big part of that is realizing that a sturdy child is more of the target than a happy child. Peace and contentment is more important than feeling happy.
It is not surprising that the book of James relates that we should be joyful when we struggle because this builds perseverance, which leads to maturity and wisdom. It is the act of learning to struggle well, that is truly the engine to growth and maturity in the lives of our children. The challenge is to ask ourselves, are we truly equipping our children to deal with their emotions or are we just trying to keep them happy? In my experience, an equipped child will find more happiness.
LEARN MORE about Keith McCurdy at LIVESTURDY.COM.