Raising Happy Kids: Let Them Be Sad

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19 Feb 2015

It is finally Rosh Chodesh Adar, Mishenichnas Adar Marbim Bsimcha. It is definitely a time for us to focus on happiness and what that really means for our family and our kids.

When I was little girl I was a pretty happy kid. I didn’t get upset too often but when I did I wanted to be left alone. I remember my parents, teachers or my friends trying to cheer me up. Adults and kids alike would expend a lot of effort in shooing away the bad feelings. They would say something funny to make me laugh and then exclaim, “There’s a smile! You are already feeling better.” They would also try to explain why I should be happy, “Later we are having chocolate pudding for dinner. So you shouldn’t be so upset.” It annoyed me and made me feel guilty. I was feeling unhappy and wanted to wallow. I knew it wouldn’t take me long to pull myself out of my funk. I just wanted to do it on my own time. Looking back, I could never understand why people wouldn’t just let me be sad.

Most kids feel that very same way. Children are resentful when parents work so hard to make them happy. It is frustrating to have to feel good when you are feeling bad, especially with the people whom you want to feel most comfortable. Children may also be confused about their emotions. They might think to themselves “Something must be wrong with the way I feel, if my parents don’t want me to feel it.”

Children also crave independence. That includes being in charge of their feelings and frame of mind. When parents try to dictate a child’s mood, even with the best of intentions, it interferes with a child’s need for autonomy. This can further frustrate children and drive a wedge between parents and children.

So why do parents do this? Because deep down we think it is our job to keep our kids happy all the time and protect them from the vicissitudes of life. Furthermore, if we do that well then we are good parents. We might think that a child’s mood reflects our ability to parent effectively. A happy kid equals good parents an unhappy kid equals bad parents. When we work from this baseline we become enmeshed in our kids’ angry moods. We cannot stand to see our children distressed or disheartened.

Sometimes we become so invested in trying to make our kids happy that we have a hard time accepting their rough feelings. We forget that they do not have an adult’s perspective. We may think they don’t have to be disappointed if they lost their ball game because they have years and hundreds of ball games to win. They don’t have to be hurt about their best friend being mean because tomorrow they won’t even remember that they fought. If they just listened to us, the all-knowing parent they would always be smiling and contented. They would never have a bad day ever again.

As parents we are missing the point. We need to remember that all people have low states and high states, good moods and bad moods. It is part of the human condition. Our job as parents is not to make our kids happy all the time but to teach children ways to help themselves manage the inevitable ups and downs of life. They need to learn not to sweat the small stuff through trial and error. They need to experience being grumpy for no good reason, a broken scooter, a missing baseball and the mistake that the bakery made when they delivered a vanilla birthday cake instead of chocolate. This will give them the tools they need to handle the big issues in life, being grumpy for no good reason, the car that won’t start, missing keys and when the blue hats that you ordered for your meticulous client are mysteriously red.

Children need to find their own ways to deal with life’s bumps, and to pursue happiness and satisfaction in life. It is a very personal journey. Pushing children to be happy and not letting them be sad robs them of that opportunity. Feeling and managing the rough spots are lessons within themselves. Lessons we do not want our children to miss.

Faber, A., Mazlish, E. (1999). How To Talk So Kids Will Listen. NY: Harper Collins.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.