Ask your friends to name their top three parenting goals and I bet most will include “I want my child to be happy.” Makes sense. Who doesn't want their child to be happy? But there’s one small glitch: parents can’t make their kids happy.
It's not in your power to ensure that everything works out for your child. You can’t save him from his classmates, teachers or teammates, let alone his siblings.
Nor can you save him from his own body and brain. Your child may have all sorts of issues to deal with ranging from physical health challenges to mental health challenges to learning challenges. You can't determine your child’s emotional “set-point” – the mood your child will experience most often throughout his lifetime (particularly if he doesn’t take specific steps to alter it). If your child was born “sunny side up” that’s great. But he may have been born in a dark cloud. He may be prone to irritability, grumpiness and other forms of natural negativity.
No matter what kind of excellent parenting you are doing, your child may suffer from varying degrees of depression or anxiety or other conditions that can rob him of joy. And although you can introduce your child to all sorts of interventions that might bring him out of his funk, your child has free will. Even if he does cooperate, it will be in his own time. He is on his own journey, just as we all are.
If you could guarantee your child a lifetime of happiness, would you want to?
And even if you could guarantee your child a lifetime of happiness, would you want to? Life's challenges teach our children how to cope with frustration and adversity. It develops our character and personal depth.
Wisdom comes from enduring challenges. We may not pro-actively seek these types of difficult situations, but God brings us plenty of life situations that make us dig deeply into ourselves, transform ourselves and become truly “wise.” From minor disappointments to major personal difficulties, all human beings experience the painful side of life. No one is exempt. But this dark side of life is not all dark; in fact, it is streaked with light.
People are often truly grateful for the challenges that have pushed them to actualize their inner strengths. They know they wouldn't have reached their potential without going through those intense hardships.
Does this all mean that we want our kids to suffer? Absolutely not. Our instincts are to save them from pain. I’m not suggesting that we traumatize our little ones in order to send them to their greatest heights of development! All I’m saying is that when our kids do suffer, as they inevitably do, we should at least recognize some of the benefits of these so-called “negative” experiences.
Recognizing the hidden value within the crisis, we can appreciate that a diet of only happiness, no matter how appealing that may seem, cannot be the very best thing for our children. On such a diet, they cannot develop into their greatest selves.
Ultimately it's the child’s responsibility to find happiness through his own hard-earned efforts.
So what is in your control when it comes to parenting? You can provide your child with a model of how to cope with life’s challenges. You can learn techniques for bringing out the best in your child and work on applying them. You can work on your own personal development and mental health. You can work on providing your child with a stable home base from which to grow. You can give your child opportunities to develop skills and competencies through arranging various social, spiritual and educational endeavors. You can work on your marriage and teach your child values. You can introduce your child to the wisdom of Judaism as a resource for his journey. You can pray for your child’s well-being and teach your child how to pray too.
God wants each one of us to do our own work. It is the child’s responsibility to work on himself, to find happiness through his own hard-earned efforts. Real happiness comes from our deepest development. No amount of toys or fame will satisfy the soul. Rather, overcoming challenges, becoming wiser, connecting to our fellow human beings, making meaningful contributions, doing acts of kindness, and connecting to our Source – these are the activities that, in the end, will bring us - and our children - true happiness.