Why Teaching Kids to Feel Good Isn’t Good Enough

It’s all about feelings these days, at least for kids. Whether you’re a toddler watching Daniel Tiger or a college student seeking a safe space, American culture wants you to know that your emotions are valued and cherished beyond all else. Now, don’t get me wrong: I think it’s great that we’re working to teach our children how to recognize, express, and manage their emotions effectively. My grandfather at the ripe old age of 89 would shirk from hugs insisting, “We just didn’t do that.” He also had the nasty habit of disciplining his kids with a rubber sole. So, yeah, I get that the correct expression of emotion is an important skill to master. I just don’t think we’re teaching it very effectively.

Watch any episode of Daniel Tiger and you’ll get the gist pretty quickly. Do good because it feels good. Everything today is about “feeling good.” We’re supposed to accept transgendered 9-year-olds because they “feel good” about themselves. Guys in CoverGirl mascara ads? That’s totally good, because #lashequality “feels good.” Safe spaces are good, not because they do much of anything in terms of practical solutions, but because they make kids … that’s right, you guessed it, “feel good.”

Here’s the problem with using “feeling good” as a reason and motivation for any action: Ted Bundy felt good mutilating women. Hitler felt good murdering Jews. Kim Kardashian felt good publishing a sex tape. While doing good may feel good, feeling good doesn’t always lead to doing good.

There’s a reason the Bible exists. In it, God contextualizes doing good deeds in terms of positive, practical outcomes that translate into healthy emotional, social, and psychological attitudes that sustain cultures and build communities. You don’t take care of the widow and the orphan because it makes you feel good. You take care of those in need because people who have basic needs met become productive members of society instead of criminals. You treat your neighbors with respect because then they will respect you, even if you two may disagree. Because while disagreeing doesn’t “feel good,” being respected feels great.

Lately, we’ve been seeing the ugly side of “feel good” motivations. Bakers put out of business because their beliefs didn’t make someone else “feel good.” Kids being forced to share bathrooms with the opposite sex because biology doesn’t “feel good.” Contextualizing a child-grandparent relationship in terms of sex because kissing grandma doesn’t “feel good.” Basing your behavioral logic on the concept of “feeling good” can lead you down some really weird, strange paths, as basic cable often proves; just catch an episode of “Hoarders” or “My 600-Pound Life.” Where’s the good in that?

Yes, media works to avoid religion at all costs. But, religion exists for a reason: to teach us the many purposes, great and small, in choosing to be good people. Subtract that lesson from the equation and you’re giving your kids license to do anything as long as they “feel good” about it. Yes, by all means, let your kid enjoy the mini-morality inherent in quality children’s television. But, don’t let Daniel Tiger or Elmo become the high priest of your child’s life.