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On Parenting | Perspective

Why parents should try to be happy, even when their child isn’t

September 11, 2018 at 6:00 AM

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A child’s life is full of setbacks.

Think about it. You wake up, you want to play with your Thomas the Tank Engine trains and you want Thomas to pull Percy. Not Gordon. Seriously, Gordon? And you had Percy. Yesterday, or maybe it was last month, or definitely after your birthday in March. But now Percy is nowhere to be found. Nowhere!

Lunch? Peanut butter, which you hate, even though you liked it yesterday. Sippy cup? Blue, though the red one is superior.

From such struggles as these, our children go onward. They aren’t in the same class as all their friends. They leave their homework at home and can get only half-credit. They don’t make varsity, they break a leg in preseason and can’t play that year, they fail a test because they studied the wrong thing, they don’t get into the dream college. They’re disappointed, angry, miserable, crushed.

And maybe they should be. But what about us — their loving parents?

If our kids are lucky, even as we are helping them to calm down and lick their wounds, we’re hanging on to our glorious adult perspective. We know there’s another class, another team, another test, another college. That means while part of us is right there with them, another part — the larger part — is taking the long view. The this-will-be-okay view. The happier view.

When life really has our kids down, it’s tempting to go right down with them. Being happy when your kid is not sounds wrong. Isn’t the saying “you’re only as happy as your unhappiest kid”? We believe we’re supposed to throw ourselves into sympathizing and empathizing — and then we take that too far, as modern parents do. Their experience becomes our experience. That’s not good for our kids, and it’s not good for us, either.

Related: [Gretchen Rubin shares her tips for a happier parenting existence]

When we board our children’s emotional roller coasters, we make things more difficult for them. Suddenly, they have an even bigger burden than their own unhappiness: ours.

That can make our kids want to shut us out rather than invite us in. As much as it might not look like it, our kids don’t like to make us unhappy. So when their problems upset us, whether it’s not making the A team in seventh-grade soccer or being excluded from a party, some kids draw conclusions. Next time, they just won’t try out for the team or won’t reveal that they feel sad when they don’t make it. If telling us when they’re hurting hurts us as much as it does them, they just won’t tell us anything at all.

That’s an unintended consequence, and here’s another: When our kids don’t tell us their problems, or when we share fully in their experience of those problems, our children lose the benefit of our adult perspective. Maybe not making the team or not being invited to the party is as bad as they thought it was, and now what? If this grown-up in front of me can’t handle it, how can I?

Our reasonable adult reactions help guide our children to theirs (eventually). If it’s not the end of the world, it’s not the end of the world, even if it feels as though nothing will ever be the same after the big loss or the gargantuan mistake.

Of course, it’s easy to give lip service to this idea — to model a reasonable reaction for our kids even while our hearts are breaking for them on the inside. Do that, and you’re halfway there — but we owe it to our children, and to ourselves, to take that next step and go ahead and feel happy — or sanguine, or secure, or comfortable, if you prefer a different word. Our children don’t want to be responsible for our happiness. They want to be responsible for their own happiness. Their heartbreak — whether it’s over missing the cutoff for the fifth-grade spelling bee by one word or divorcing their partner of five years — is their heartbreak, not ours.

Empathize. Sympathize. Cry for them and, maybe, with them. But know that it’s okay for you to give them a hug, or put down the phone, and head out for your tennis game and enjoy it. Probably not as much you usually would, but some. Because you’re okay — and it’s important for your kids to know it. In fact, it’s part of what helps them find their way to okay, too.

KJ Dell’Antonia is the author of “How to Be a Happier Parent.” Dell’Antonia formerly wrote the Motherlode blog for the New York Times. Find her online at kjdellantonia.com.

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More reading:

Want your kids to be resilient? Here’s what not to do.

To raise independent kids, treat middle school like a dress rehearsal for life

I know my grown children’s struggles aren’t about me. But sometimes I need a reminder.

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