January 6, 2014

For Happier Children: Be Happy First.

On sweet and endless long summer afternoons, my father, who is an artist, used to carry large canvases into our hot and sandy living room by the sea.

Stumbling over childhood board games and forgotten toys, he magically turned our living space into a larger-than-life art studio, while my siblings and I watched in wonder.

And on short winter days, my mother, who is a fashion designer, used to bring out endless yards of fabric into the dining room where we often talked long into the night about films, books and culture. In her arms, she carried layers of silks and velvets and linens, along with trimmings and patterns she had designed, which turned our home into an instant design studio.

My sisters and I always wanted to be involved in what they were doing and even passively talking about, as their passionate blends of creativity always seemed far more interesting than whatever we were experiencing at the moment. Furthermore, their adventurous search for artistic fulfillment helped shaped the individuality of each of us, as well as fostering our continual search for meaning through the arts and self-discovery.

As a child, what I remember most about my parents is that they seemed to be fulfilled, although I did not realize this at the time, I just knew I felt a soothing sense of calm and joy. In visions I have about my childhood, I recall both of their faces as intent and curious while they were involved in doing things they enjoyed and were challenged by, a trait I have tried to emulate as a parent myself.

A very long time ago, when perhaps we were all very young, our parents lived their own lives, while we got along just fine as we experienced the joys and perils of youth, without much desperate concern from mom and dad.

This did not mean that they did not love us, while they worked hard and embedded themselves in their friendships and communities and creative pursuits, it simply meant that they honored themselves enough to adventure down paths that included exclusively their own interests.

Psychiatrist Carl Jung wrote, “The greatest tragedy of the family is the un-lived lives of the parents.”

This has become more evident than Jung could have foreseen, with many parents unhappy, and thus rearing children without healthy role models.

Many parents today have begun to focus so much on the bliss of their children that they often put aside their own. And yet, one of the greatest lessons a child can learn in order to grow into a healthy and happy adult is that they are indeed “not the center of the universe”, whether it be the universe of their parents, or that of their own making.

A generation ago, children felt loved and were expected to be respectful, get decent grades and help around the house without the promise of money or rewards, except the gift of self-respect they would gain in kind.

This is the most esteemed character trait we can build in our children; that respect and self-esteem is earned and learned; and not as a given or birthright.

Bill Cosby once said, “Always end the name of your child with a vowel, so that when you yell, the name will carry.”

My name ends in a vowel, and I can assure you that my father only had to gave us a mere hint he may yell before my siblings and I were fast to get our chores done; and without trips to the mall or ice cream store as an incentive.

This does not mean a parent should go in the other direction either, making a child feel less than a twinkle in anyone’s eye as Rodney Dangerfield once lamented, “My mother didn’t breast-feed me. She said she only liked me as a friend.”

My mother did breast fed me, and thankfully, she also didn’t see me as her friend. Rather, she was someone I could look up to and towards, not equally to. And to this day, I see her as a strong, admirable person whom I wouldn’t be healthy without. No letters please.

The pointed dilemma remains if many children today are rewarded simply for existing rather than for contributions they should naturally make to their families, their communities, and for themselves with real effort.

Equally as important is for children to witness their own parents as separate unique individuals who also have the right to fulfilled and passionate lives.

But it isn’t as bad as some people fear, at least in the way comedian Rita Rudner surmised when she said, “My husband and I are either going to buy a dog or have a child. We can’t decide whether to ruin the carpet or ruin our lives.”

Whether we choose to ruin our own lives or those of our own children through overindulgence or self-sacrifice, the choice is ultimately up to us.

Due to a culture of excessive materialism, broken families and guilt because most two-parent families have to work, kids get much of the free time, money and energy parents barely have, leaving some families overdrawn, overspent , and overwhelmed.

Ironically we feel our children are reflections of ourselves, and when they are happy, we feel we have succeeded in the ultimate goal of successful parenting.

But if we have forgotten how to be happy ourselves, we are in essence teaching that happiness isn’t so important after all, except if you are sacrificing your own for that of others.

Children do not live in a vacuum, rather—they are vacuums who consume everything and all of the unintentional healthy and unhealthy psychology we may besiege them throughout childhood.

Albeit lovingly, we often pass to our children the stresses and haunts of adulthood, chipping away at their innocence one hard lesson at a time, beginning with our own role modeling as the most prevalent influence on their lives.

Many parents even seem embarrassed to admit occasions experienced without their children, as if the more they sacrifice, the better a parent everyone they will be.

Some even become martyrs and boast about how they haven’t had a vacation in years, how they can’t remember their last movie or an evening with their spouse or close friends.

Sports practices, music lessons and play dates take up every afternoon and weekend, leaving some kids and parents so exhausted, they have forgotten how to find joy in the simple, quiet pursuits we all need for mental and inner peace.

This is not to say that spending quality time with one’s children is not an important and valuable gift every child needs. Rather, it is when it is at the expense of everyone and everything else—leaving no one fulfilled in the end, and many children feeling a false sense of ego gratification.

Paul Pearsall, Ph. D. in his book ‘The Pleasure Prescription’ calls this a “toxic epidemic” and writes that many families today suffer from ‘Delight Deficiency Syndrome’, a lack of joy and sufficient daily bliss to bring about necessary psychological and physical health. He says that parents need to enjoy their life and children and stop worrying so much about creating a “forever-suffering inner child.”

Historically what makes children happy is learning through discovery what other people have felt passion for and have accomplished.

A boy who watches his father fix up an old car or help him build a fence for example, is a memory of active happiness he can build upon. Likewise, a young girl growing up with a fulfilled mother is more valuable than any designer handbag her mother can attempt to satiate her with.

My generation was taught the values of independence, self-respect, industriousness, and the attainable ultimate goal of taking on challenges with courage, grace and humility. Harnessing a child’s love for the things they love is a vital part of raising happy children, but a parent who dares to live a fulfilled life is one of the most loving gifts one can give as well.

And that lesson can only be matched by the autonomous happiness of spirit you may one day witness in your own children as they grow up to be as fulfilled and integral as you.

The greatest gifts I can give my children is the freedom and learned joys of physical and emotional autonomy, peppered with hard-fought work, personal responsibility and the sweat-filled days that only come with being young, bare-faced and naive.

“Put your phones away, it is time to eat,” I said to my daughters one night as the aroma of homemade spaghetti sauce blanketed our senses.

During dinner, sometimes I ask them what they learned in school; if they have any new friends, or if anything particularly interesting had happened they might want to share.

But usually we just sit in each other’s company in the quiet and stillness of a family meal, enjoying the fleeting moments that I know they will remember together one day in concerted yearning and sweet melancholy.

As I kissed one daughter on her wind-swept forehead after school yesterday, my heart swelled and my eyes teared as I knew my sleepless parented nights had not been in vain.

“I can’t wait until college because I’ll be able to choose the classes I want,” she said, with her heavy backpack in her arms and shoes naturally untied.

“That will be the best day of my life, and it’s only seven years away.”

As she continued to go on about college, and all of her innocence-filled life plans, all I could focus on were the words “only seven years away.”

Seven years away I thought.

Seven more glorious years to bask in the glow and the magic that is childhood.


Relephant reads:

In Search of Happy.

Childhood Magic—Why Does it Have to End?

15 Ways My Child Reminds Me to be Happy Every Day.

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Editor: Rachel Nussbaum

Photo: courtesy of the author

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