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  Chapter 37 from
Positive Parenting
Developing your child's potential.

By Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski  Ursula Schwartz 


Other Available Chapters
18  22  27 


The Happiness Trap

Some of the theories that have been popularized in recent times seem to indicate that it is the parents’ sacred obligation and responsibility to make sure that their children are happy. If a child mopes or otherwise shows any signs of being unhappy, this triggers a guilt trip within the parents: “What am I doing that is wrong?” There seems to be a prevailing attitude that “Life is going to be hard enough on these kids when they grow up. Let them at least have a happy childhood.” The logic of this attitude may appear convincing, but it is misguided. Many youngsters have picked up on this theme, and if happiness eludes them, they may try to find it through the use of marijuana or other mind-altering substances.

The true parental responsibility toward a child is not to provide him with happiness, but with chinuch, a preparation for life, and a preparation for reality. The Torah tells us that G-d relates to us as a Father to a child (Deuteronomy 8:2-10), and although G-d is Omnipotent and could certainly have given the Israelites an immediate and permanent euphoria, he nevertheless disciplined them while providing for their essential needs.

There is indeed a mitzvah to “rejoice . . . and be happy” (Deuter-
onomy
16:14, 15), but the word mitzvah means a commandment, or something which a person must do. Joy and happiness are something we must work to achieve, rather than something G-d gives to us. It is no different with human parents. We must provide our children with the skills and resources to enable them to function optimally in the real world, but happiness is something that only they can achieve. Parents cannot give children happiness.

There is a great deal of emphasis in the news these days on child abuse, and unfortunately, some parents are capable of traumatizing their children. We must be careful that in our abhorrence of child abuse, we do not go to the other extreme of overindulgence, of considering every sign of displeasure as a failure on our part to make the child happy. Such an attitude may result in a spoiled but unhappy child, and a frustrated, guilt-ridden parent.

Let us reiterate. It is the parental responsibility to provide children with the tools for an optimal adjustment to the real world, to be independent learners, and to be people who can overcome challenges and master situations they have never previously encountered, but feelings of happiness must come from within. It is not our job to give our children happiness, but rather to allow them learning opportunities that give them the skills to gain happiness by themselves, and to regain it when it is temporarily lost.

Since happiness is something that the child must achieve, attempts by the parents to give him happiness rob him of something that can enrich and strengthen him: mastery of difficult situations and fortitude in the face of adversity. As we have pointed out earlier, when parents do something for the child that he can do for himself, this deprives the child of the necessary stimulus for maturation and independence.

Let us look at an example of how a parent might deal with a child’s obvious unhappiness. Sarah, Rivvy’s younger sister, received a beautiful doll for her birthday. Rivvy, who is all of 6 years old, is jealous and upset, because she, too, wants a doll. Should the mother feel guilty because Rivvy is unhappy and buy her a doll too? Should the mother try to talk Rivvy out of her feelings of unhappiness? How should she react if Rivvy starts to cry? Should she feel guilty for giving Sarah a doll as a birthday gift? Is it possible that Rivvy feels unloved? Is it possible that Rivvy will have an emotional scar throughout her life, and be permanently scarred because she did not receive a gift equal to her sister’s?

If the mother feels she must make Rivvy happy, she is in trouble. Unless she succumbs and buys Rivvy a doll, Rivvy will be unhappy. This is the wrong path to take. Instead the mother might point out to Rivvy that she received a dollhouse for her birthday just a short while ago, or she may give her some other fully reasonable explanation. The problem is that when a child is upset, the impact of words, however wise and logical, is unlikely to change the way the child feels. If the mother, like many other parents, is unable to tolerate Rivvy’s distress and tries to fix it right away, which in this case would mean buying Rivvy a doll, she will have failed to prepare the child for reality, because the real world will not give her everything she wants just to keep her happy.

Children may often be unhappy because of many things that displease them, and this is perfectly normal. If parents believe that it is their duty to see that the child is happy, they may interpret this unhappiness as a failure on their part, and they may therefore become angry with the child for being unhappy and making them feel they are a failure as parents. The danger of the “happiness trap” is now evident: Parents may become frustrated and angry, and children may feel helpless and dependent, incapable of making themselves happy, which lowers their self-esteem. If they become totally dependent on their parents to make them happy, the parents’ inability to do so may lead to resentment.

If Rivvy’s mother sees herself as a teacher of happiness skills, and sees it as her job to provide practice opportunities for these skills, she may look at the situation with different eyes. This is a chance for problem solving, generating options, and emotional regulation. The mother reframes the situation for her daughter: This is a challenge, both intellectually as well as emotionally. The mother sees it as her job to lead Rivvy along the way and to facilitate her regaining her emotional equilibrium. The mother would realize that her goal is to dosage the stress and to keep the problem at a level where it is solvable both intellectually and emotionally. If Rivvy is 10, the mother will treat her differently than a 3-year-old. Regardless of the specifics, mother can turn the situation into a learning experience. How does she do this?

First, it is most important that the mother accepts Rivvy’s feelings of hurt and jealousy, even verbalizing them for her. “I know you also wish you had such a doll. Yes, it is hard at times to be at a sister’s birthday. I can remember when I was very hurt that I did not have things that others had.” Instead of trying to fix Rivvy’s feelings, she lets her know that she understands them and can accept them. Mother also has to let Rivvy know that whining or crying and trying to upset everyone is not acceptable. She can remind Rivvy that not everyone in the family gets and needs the same things. By identifying and empathizing with Rivvy, mother defuses the situation.

Most importantly, however, mother is on the alert for the first indication that Rivvy is controlling her jealous feelings, and lets Rivvy know, by a smile, a nod, or a special word, that she is truly a great girl. By not giving and by not fixing, mother is helping Rivvy develop strengths and competencies. The mother herself is not in a situation where she feels a failure because her child is unhappy. The mother thus preserves the relationship between herself and her child, and in this fashion gives her a lot more than the mother who burns herself out trying to keep her children happy all the time.

The regulation of feelings, sometimes called affective regulation, is a very important skill that underlies happiness in life. We can model this skill for our children, but we cannot do it for them. We can suggest a variety of self-soothing strategies for them and help them think thoughts that are productive and that reduce the conflict, but ultimately the job has to be done by the child himself. Children need to learn to re-align their emotions by practicing this in a variety of situations. This means that a dose of suffering and distress has to be part of a healthy childhood. Teaching the child acceptance of the distress and sincerely celebrating the child’s mastery of his feelings are the psychological task of the parent.

The Talmud repeatedly states that when Jews are in distress, G-d suffers along with them (Taanis 16a). But since G-d is all powerful, why is there any need for Him to suffer at all? He can just relieve our distress so that everyone will be happy. The answer is that similar to a human parent, it is not in our best interest for G-d to make us happy. He provides us with skills and strengths and teachings, but we must forge our own happiness.

A parent has to learn to walk the delicate balance between protecting the child and letting him come to terms with his own feelings. Adults who have not mastered self-regulatory skills in childhood are often very unhappy and at the total mercy of their emotions.

 
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