Guest post: "We're making our children unhappy"
The happiness industry is booming, but Ruth Whippman says it's not having the desired effect on parents - or their children
Posted on: Thu 10-Mar-16 12:14:10
(47 comments )
I'm hanging out on the sidelines at toddler playgroup, and in a moment of breathtaking cuteness, spy a two-year-old boy handing a little girl the toy fire engine he is playing with so that she can have a turn. All the parents gasp in unison, like a group of birdwatchers marveling at a glimpse of a rare new genus of eagle. Then out of nowhere, the boy's mum barrels in, grabs the fire engine off the little girl, and hands it back to her son. "He's happier when he doesn't have to share," she explains.
We live in California, perhaps the world headquarters of parental overthinking, and this isn't the first example I've seen here of an earnestly endorsed parenting philosophy that has lost all sense of human reason. But secretly, much as I hate to admit it, buried within this bizarre impending child rearing car crash, is the shameful kernel of a trait I recognise in myself. That is, a completely disproportionate focus on my own children's happiness that can sometimes border on the ridiculous.
In the two years I've spent researching and writing my book, The Pursuit of Happiness and Why It's Making Us Anxious, I've come to the clear conclusion that the more avidly we value and pursue happiness as a singular goal in our lives, the more stressed and unhappy we become. But somehow I just can't seem to apply this logic to my kids. Although I can remain blissfully unmindful, disempowered, unactualised, and totally indifferent to my inner child, when it comes to my actual child, the facade starts to crumble.
While parents of all backgrounds want the best for their children and do what they can to make that happen, this type of nervous hovering 'hyper-parenting' is overwhelmingly a middle class phenomenon.
At some deep level, I am terrified that if I fail to maximise every tiny happiness opportunity for my sons, they might grow up to be 'not happy'. That their future memoirs chronicling their mother's failure to give adequate praise to their cotton-wool Easter bunnies will turn up in the Painful Lives section of the bookshop, next to the Satanic abuse ones.
As a result, my approach to their happiness can sometimes feel less like a by-product of living and more like a forced march. I just can't relax and leave it to play out naturally. A feeling of urgency and perfectionism creeps in, and I feel compelled to pursue it frenetically on their behalf.
When my first son was born, I instantly contracted every malady in the diagnostic manual of middle-class parenting, exhausting myself trying to optimise his every moment. My voice took on a bizarrely over-enunciated, syrupy register I had never known myself capable of, somewhere between wartime BBC announcer and Julie Andrews, as I delivered a running commentary of the tedious minutiae of everything we did.
If I stuck him in his bouncer and took five minutes to check Facebook, I would then spend the next forty-five minutes compounding the problem by googling variations on: 'Romanian orphans, emotional effects of caregiver neglect' and scour his behaviour, hawk-like, for the signs. In short, I drove myself (and doubtless everyone around me) absolutely crazy.
I've backed off a bit with my second son, but still have my moments, and I'm certainly not alone. Fed by a multi-million pound parenting industry, the expectation of what parents should be doing in service of their children's happiness has been constantly inflating. Time use surveys show that a mother now spends an average of four extra hours with her children every week compared to her 1965 counterpart, while university-educated mothers put in an extra nine hours, despite being far more likely to work outside the home. Much of this time is spent in what sociologists call "concerted cultivation" (think scrambling over a jungle gym two inches behind a four-year-old while maintaining an unbroken educational commentary about the park's flora and fauna).
But it would seem that all this parental intensity might be backfiring. While parents of all backgrounds want the best for their children and do what they can to make that happen, this type of nervous hovering 'hyper-parenting' is overwhelmingly a middle class phenomenon. But detailed research by sociologists from the University of Pennsylvania, who studied the habits and lifestyles of both middle class and lower income families, shows that despite their many advantages, middle class children parented in this way tend to be less happy than their working class counterparts (lower income children are also more independent, whine less, and have closer relationships with family members.) So perhaps the same principle that applies to happiness in our own lives is equally applicable when chasing it on our children's behalf. Happiness should be the by-product, not the goal.
Author photo: Eliot Khuner
By Ruth Whippman
I think that the lower class relationships with other family members has a lot going for it to be honest. I've moved into a working class area and the differences with most kids going to see granny/stay with granny/ have tea with granny/aunt/ cousins and the depth of close relationships, support close by and lower expectations of success I think make a huge enviable difference.
Yep - it's ridiculous. Children need plenty of time just 'hanging around' and making their own fun. A bit of boredom makes them inventive. Not sure that isn't fairly obvious though...
This is a US-centric article. Thankfully British folk aren't so overtaken as their US counterparts by the pursuit of happiness - many Brits are rather satisfied being grumpy.
Middle class and working class are rather different socio-economic groups here in the UK than they are in the USA and the research is all US based.
And, YAY! MNHQ - another article telling man of us how we are doing it wrong!
If we are "Middle Class" we are neurotic helicopter hyper-parenting - but hey, those "hearty working class folk" are doing it all correctly. Insulting to both categories of families.
That's a good point Invictus. I'd be interested to see the results of research conducted here.
Is there proof that we worry more than we used to about entertaining our children? The study showing we spend more time with our children could be due to electronics etc which mean housework takes less time; working hours have become more flexible for women. It's not necessarily a bad thing is it?
We're also told that lower income families speak to their children less (30 million word gap by age 3), spend less time with their children, read to them less etc (I am below the poverty line btw). We're told our children are the unhappiest in Europe because we don't spend enough time with them. Can't get it right, can we
Bollocks. Apart from the fact that US and UK parenting styles are very different I just don't believe the fire engine story.
Overly focusing on wanting to make your child happy also makes it difficult for the child later in life (or even still in childhood) if they aren't happy,
Knowing that my parents would be disappointed that I wasn't happy made me seek help elsewhere for depression. Not being happy when my parents focused so much on being happy and doing things that would make me happy made me feel like I was letting them down by not having happiness.
There's more to life than 'being happy'.
"two-year-old boy handing a little girl the toy fire engine he is playing with so that she can have a turn... the boy's mum barrels in, grabs the fire engine off the little girl, and hands it back to her son. "He's happier when he doesn't have to share," she explains."
Hahaha I'm sure that happened. Not.
I do agree with the gist of what you are saying OP but the stuff you talk about is, well, nuts. Satanic abuse? What?
Does she mean "I"?
I hate it when journos do that. Speak for yourself flower.
Just what we need. Another article telling us we are doing it all wrong
But isn't that the point? Mc parents are the ones reading all these articles and books about flora and fauna, and how to maximise language acquisition and limit hidden sugars. It's less a thing in other groups, who for many reasons mau just ask their mum.
Outside of abuse and neglect, most kids grow up balanced and happy.
We live in an anxious age in general.
I half agree and half disagree.
I agree with the OP saying that trying to ensure our children stay happy makes them anxious.
I disagree with the reasons though.
I think trying to immediately over comfort and distract and just generally try to stop our children from feeding sad, angry, disappointed etc stops them learning how to deal with negative emotions.
Certainly since I've taken the attitude that my job as a parent is to support them through the hard stuff, rather than magic away, has made ME less anxious and worried that I'm doing some thing wrong
You see it all the time - we distract upset toddlers, try to fix it replace that broken biscuit, tell them to stop crying etc - that we give them the message that these negative emotions are bad. And they are not - we just need to help them deal with them well instead of a 3 hour tantrum (dd1 and the broken banana. Sigh)
And I totally agree with what someone said upthread with the wider family contribution having a big affect. (Not that I have that - but in my friends that do they seem so much less frazzled, and the kids just that bit more secure somehow)
Oh for the love of Pete. Can we go one, one day when we're not force fed the narrative of 'parenting is so hard, we simply can't get it right and should therefore feel permanently guilty about something.
I'm so bored of it. You know what being a parent really is? Normal. And yet there are thousands of people spinning us this shit and making a living off of keeping us anxious and in constant need of advice. Otherwise Mumsnet, for one, wouldn't exist.
Can't we just, I dunno, talk about something else?
How odd that she would say that when she's just written a book about it (and handily provided a link). It's as if the two are somehow connected.....?
OP seems to be making a living out of over thinking.
I work in mental health, psychology etc and honestly this article is just adult jackanory.
Bollocks and yawn......get out more op
I couldn't read this. I don't like to be outrightly critical of someone's blog but I got as far as the fire engine story, thought , read "California" and gave up.
It's not like that here so wherever you're worrying about it isn't a particularly widespread problem.
Oh dear I got as far as the fire engine and gave up.
We continue this in school when we never allow children to deal with failure and competition. We have sports days where no one loses and used to have GCSES that it was almost impossible to fail because coursework was constantly re-marked.
The fire engine...
What a fucking stupid article.
The fire engine story read like one of those meaningful stories on facebook - my only thought was, "didn't happen".
The rest as others have said is just a load more guilt-loading crap - yes the description of the hyper chat is something I recognise and of course we are all trying too hard sometimes, but is that any surprise given the constant stream of instruction and criticism we are subject to from the media?
I'm consistently surprised by how anodyne and uninteresting so many of MN's blog posts are. But I suspect that reflects the standard of blogs in general. Most of the blogs I read are just a bland stream of consciousness