In Pursuit of Happiness

In talking with a group of parents, a mother expressed her concern about her two year old daughter’s upset when it is time for mom to leave for work in the morning.  One could feel the mother’s own pain over the child’s tears and protests about her leaving.  She expressed her feelings of guilt about leaving the little girl and described how she gets up earlier every morning in order to have more time to spend with the child.  Nothing she tried has helped.

In talking about her feelings this mother said that her guilt and own upset are because she wants her daughter to be happy, and the child’s unhappiness means that mom is doing something is wrong.  It seems that her child’s happiness reassures her that she is a good mother, while signs of unhappiness mean mother is failing.

I have heard many mothers say that their goal in child-rearing is for a child to be happy.  In many situations, children’s tears, protests and expressions of frustration, then are seen as signs of unhappiness.  This is especially true when a child wants something from her mother, particularly attention.  Many mothers working outside the home express their feelings of guilt about leaving their children.

Children provoke such feelings by their tearful entreaties to parents not to leave them.  Mothers are vulnerable to their children’s pleas because of the still lingering idea that mothers are supposed to stay home to care for their children.  When children are upset by their going to work, mothers feel responsible for their children’s unhappiness and worry that they are harming them in some way.

But this is also related to an underlying idea that children’s happiness is some sort of guiding principle for successful development.  A most often heard statement from parents is, “I just want him/her to be happy.”  Unfortunately, this pursuit of happiness  not only is unrealistic, it can be a slippery slope leading parents to respond to their children in ways that often are not constructive.

The fact is that growing up entails not having everything you want and not having everything done in accordance with your wishes.  Children start out with the pleasure principle, which means having the things you like and rejecting those you don’t.  Raising children involves helping them gradually learn to live in the real world, which means having to do things you don’t like to do and paying attention to what others want as well as your own wishes.

This process inevitably involves frustration and disappointment for children.  They don’t like and don’t want to do certain things and react with protest.  Their protest is often expressed in tears, angry behavior, or what may be seen by parents as unhappiness.  When parents don’t want to deal with such behavior, or are upset by what they see as “unhappiness,” the solution often becomes doing what the child wants or giving the child what he wants.

Hopefully, parents will be supportive of their children who are learning these difficult lessons, using their own capacity for reasonableness to show understanding of their children’s wishes.  However, if children are to move forward parents have to be able Ativan without prescription to tolerate their expressions of protest when the lessons they are learning are hard.  The fact that they are hard doesn’t mean you are doing something bad as a parent, even though children often accuse you of just that.

Worrying that a child is unhappy prevents one from thinking through what can be most useful in the situation at hand.  For the mother described earlier, her feeling that her daughter’s unhappiness at her leaving was a bad thing led her to try to solve the problem by getting up earlier and having the baby sitter come at the last minute in order to spend more time with the child.  In effect, this was making it even harder for the child to accept the mom’s departure.

This mother has a right to go to work and her child has a right to protest.  There are ways to help her through this, one of which was to have the baby sitter come a little earlier, having enough time to engage the child in some activity while mom got ready to leave.  The mother immediately thought of something her daughter would love doing in which the sitter could interest her.

More important, however, was for the mother to feel confident about what she was doing, knowing that some feelings of unhappiness are part of growing up.