A trend in modern-day child rearing is the concept of parenting for your child’s happiness. This was displayed in a recent news story about parents letting their teen make major decisions about his identity. The father comments: “As parents, you say, ‘Whatever makes you happy.'” This parent has based the effectiveness of a major life decision on the feelings of his adolescent.
There are two problems with parenting only for your child’s happiness:
1. It gives children the authority.
Instead of mom and dad making and enforcing decisions, children are given the right to negotiate. Instead of learning to listen and obey, kids are given the opportunity to change the rules to better suit their current moods. Homes run by five-year-olds are dangerous places to be. The tyranny of a kindergartener is a wrath no one enjoys encountering.
2. It is unsustainable.
This dangerous practice of letting children’s emotions call the shots will not work in a school setting, a college dormitory, or a professional workplace. Letting children believe they are in charge sets them up for a lifetime of disappointment.
Instead of letting your children run the show, here are four characteristics that matter more than your child’s happiness:
1. Virtuous Lifestyle
In our home, this means developing character traits consistent with our family’s standard, the Word of God. We are working to foster patterns of patience and self-control, even in the midst of the infamous Terrible Twos. When our son throws a fit, our focus is on teaching him to have self-control, rather than just ending the tantrum with a distraction. When our son interacts with younger children, we seek to teach him gentleness, even though harnessing the rage of a toddler is sure to be met with resistance! When we have questions about what the best response to a situation is, we look to our unchanging guide, the Bible. We desire for our son to have a character that makes him stand out amongst his peers.
2. Hardworking Contributor
The movie Cinderella Man chronicles the life of James J. Braddock, a champion boxer who lost everything overnight at the beginning of the Depression. He went from riches to welfare, but he refused to stay in a state of dependency. Later in Braddock’s life, he returned to the welfare office and paid back every single penny he had taken from the state. He truly needed the relief funds, but he knew the help was emergency aid, not an enduring income.
I have written before on the long-term impact of starting chores at a young age. Teaching children to work hard and contribute to the needs of those around them is something you can begin teaching when your child begins walking. At that stage we taught our son to throw away his own diaper and encouraged him to be a helper. At a recent event in our church our family of three and another adult were cleaning up afterward. As I tried to sweep the kitchen floor I realized I had a leech attached to my leg. He insisted on holding onto the end of the dust mop and happily chanted, “I helping, I helper” as we swept the kitchen floor. He is only two, but he already recognizes ways to help those around him.
3. Teachable Student
Children are naturally inclined to believe they know the best way to complete a task and naturally shut out any voices contrary to their opinions. Ask any Little League coach and they can point out who on their team is teachable and who is not. Then, if you follow up and ask which players they want to build their team around, a teachable Little Leaguer is almost always preferred over an all-star who ignores instruction. A classroom full of know-it-alls is a nightmare for any teacher, so we work hard to cultivate a teachable and humble heart in our child.
4. A Future Thinker
No one makes decisions inside a vacuum; our actions today have implications for both ourselves and those around us. If our son wants to get a face tattoo, he will meet a great deal of resistance from his parents. The reason is not that we are killjoys or because tattoos are evil. The reason is that our son’s ability to get a job as anything other than a tattoo artist will be severely inhibited by this decision in his young adult years. Any job interviews would leave future employers with an indelible impression because of his facial art, rather than his resume. This lack of thinking about tomorrow can lead to years of under-achieving simply because of short-term thinking. We want to raise a son who thinks through his decisions in light of their future impact more than today’s happiness.
My son’s approval is not my ultimate goal in parenting. My child will continue to be forced to try his vegetables before he leaves the dinner table. He will know restrictions on how far into the yard he can play and will be told not to chase his ball into the busy street—even if chasing it immediately is what he thinks will bring him the most joy. I firmly believe that instilling these characteristics — and parenting a child who is virtuous — will lead to decisions that naturally bring about happiness for our son’s future, whether his immediate pleasure is compromised or not. My goal is a child who can succeed in life beyond his eighteen years under my roof; temporary happiness is a casualty of war I am willing to sacrifice for this end goal.