I stand in the kitchen washing breakfast dishes, listening to the sounds of a household getting organized. My husband packs helmets and goggles into ski bags. My 10-year-old wraps up his morning video game session. And upstairs my 8-year-old is playing the blues, lamenting the poor fortune that befalls her on this snowy winter morning. I mean that quite literally. She sits in her room playing a melancholic song on her keyboard, wailing about the injustice she endures under this oppressive parenting regime that forces her to go skiing on a day off from school. “Wow,” I think. Just wow. Shouldn’t they be happy about this? This spectacle is enough to provoke a demoralized sigh from deep within my bones. Sometimes I feel like I hear more complaining in my house than in a room full of teens with slow wifi.
One thought swirls round and round inside my head. You kids don’t know how lucky you are.
But of course they don’t know how lucky they are. I have no one to blame but myself. From the moment I learned I was pregnant, my number one parenting goal has been to protect and shelter my children so that they may thrive and be happy. As my favorite author Agatha Christie once said, “One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is, I think, to have a happy childhood.” Who doesn’t want that for their kids?
But happiness is a thorny concept.
In the early years of parenting, happiness necessarily revolves around security and stability. A safe, tended baby is a content baby. Eventually babies grow up, and safe, loving shelter is no longer enough. I’m learning as they get older that raising happy kids becomes less about what I can give to them and more about the gratitude and compassion they can give back. Not to me, but to everybody. While I’ve always tried to practice appreciation and empathy with my kids in small moments, a great big world awaits them that will demand more in exchange for fulfillment. It will require that they understand the head start they’ve been given, the power of the unconditional love that has lifted them, and the significance of doing good, not just being good.
I am afraid of missing the opportunity to help my kids make the connection between gratitude and happiness.
It’s something my parents always modeled, and yet I’m still working on it myself as I head into my fifth decade. Admittedly, I don’t think I’ve asked much of my kids during their first decade, not nearly as much as I see some other parents calling for. Some days I think I’m a helicopter parent, trying to create happiness for them. But most days I know that ultimately they will need to create their own happiness on top of the stable base their father and I have built. To do that, they’ll need to think broadly and seek to understand the people they relate to the least. The question is how. How do you encourage this in your family? How do you connect the dots between gratitude and happiness for your own children?