What is this end game of parenting? What do we want to achieve from it all? It’s a more complicated question than might first appear. If we did, it’s likely to be a thin and myopic response. I never thought much about it when I first became a dad. I was too enamored by the new baby smell; too distracted by the novelty. But that eventually wore off – then I was too tired to care. Most days I was just hoping to get through without kicking my precious, screaming, wide-awake-at-3AM, daughter from her second story bedroom window. Any grand vision I might have held for fatherhood, during her naptimes, would almost certainly have been her ‘happiness.’ And I don’t think I would have been alone. It seems most parents consider this sole achievement the barometer to the kind of job we’re doing.
Childhood can feel like an eternity. In the midst of yet another toddler meltdown, or we’ve gotten up for that 2nd early morning bottle feeding for the 12th day in a row, or we’ve carpooled to yet another practice or recital it can seem as if they will never grow up. It’s going to be like this forever. Our parents and friends assure us time goes by fast. The days seem long, but the years go quick. But we’re convinced, after another frenzied call from the babysitter and ruined date night, that ours will be a different story, and we’ll never again see the day where Calliou isn’t in the DVR queue.
Though I also doubted, the predictions came true. Babies do grow to become toddlers; toddlers turn into teens who eventually move off to college. Put your two-year-old down for a nap and he wakes up a twelve-year-old. Personalities soon emerge. Characters take shape. Opinions form. They have hopes different from ours, dreams we’ve never dreamed. We notice their baby pictures on the mantle watching them back out of the driveway and sentiment floods in. We look back to where we’ve come and forward to where they’re going and suddenly time is running out. Barely moving yesterday, they enter that other dimension called high school and time alters. A year in that world seems like an hour in ours. We ask where it all went, then slight panic sets in. Are they ready for what’s out there? Will they be able to handle the jaggedness of this jagged world? Did we do enough of the right things to prepare them for the rest of their life?
We might start second guessing ourselves, asking if we may, with the very best of intentions, have oversold the real world? Did we lead them to believe life would continue cutting the crust from their bread or folding their laundry? Were we too quick to say ‘yes’ when the world is going to give them many more ‘no’s’? In those moments, the notion of parenting may take on a whole other meaning. With the heavy lifting in the rearview, we now look at this job of mom or dad with less tired eyes. Our vision clears, and we perhaps wonder if all those years of safeguarding their ‘happiness,’ what we were told should be a parent’s life work, is what the job is really all about.
If we stop to think about it, parents have a surprisingly small window. There’s a lot to do in a short amount of time. Here’s what I mean. For the first five or so years of our child’s life, we’re just trying to keep them fed, clean, and, well, alive. Few life lessons are learned while feeding them strained peas. Forming their worldview takes a back seat to keeping them out of incoming traffic. Parenting in those years is mostly reactive and largely unintentional. Not to mention, we’re perpetually worn out during most of it. And by the time she reaches seventeen, it’s too late because it’s unlikely she’s interested in much we have to say. Personalities and opinions have now taken firm hold. Besides, we’re too old, too out of touch, and don’t have a Snapchat account.
That delta – between the diapers and diplomas- is all the runway we get. It’s all we have to ready our children for takeoff into the rest of their life. That small space is all we have to help lay a foundation they will use to build their own futures.
If we look at parenting from that perspective, I think we have to ask if our children’s ‘happiness’ is an adequate measure of success or failure? But doing so contradicts what we hear and see around us. Culture, media, ‘experts’ all have made a child’s ‘happiness’ the golden ring of parenting. If our kids grow up happy, so they say, it’s ‘mission accomplished.’ But that’s dangerous and here’s why. First, happiness is relative. What makes me happy may not make you happy. Happiness is sort of like herding cats. But second, and more importantly, happiness is an emotion and emotions can’t be trusted. Our emotions are regularly uncontrollable and routinely inexplicable. We can feel angry and not even know why, or sad with no reason for how we became so.
Contrary to popular belief, emotions are not our friends. How do I know this? Look back over the course of your own life and I’ll bet that some of your most regrettable decisions, those you wish you could go back and do again, buying that house, leasing that car, getting into that toxic relationship, were all in some vain attempt satisfy a vague emotion. If we could have just lived there, drove that, or dated her, we would finally be ‘happy’, or so we thought. But the emotion passed or changed, and now we’re left with the consequences. We’ve all been there with the debt or emotional bankruptcy to prove it. So if we can accept the unpredictability of our emotions, especially the one called ‘happiness,’ then it would seem that parenting with our children’s happiness as the bottom line goal may not be the right approach. For one, I’ll never succeed, at least in any permanent way. Two, I’ll probably go insane, an broke, trying.
But if I view my job with a far stronger lens, seeing it as what I have come to believe it is – to prepare my children for the years afterward versus the happiness of a fleeting childhood -we have to shelve those mistaken notions for something most of us hear little if anything about. I’m far less concerned about my children having a happy childhood, as I am helping prepare them for a joyful adulthood.
And joy is a very different thing from happiness.
Not to get too self-help, but joy is a choice. Happiness, as the word implies, happens. Joy is dependent on what’s inside, regardless of my circumstances outside. Happiness is about what’s going on around me. How else could you explain the woman who still sees the beauty of life while battling stage 4 cancer or a father’s smile after losing a child?
Joy can be experienced while in the midst of severe personal trials or overwhelming blessings. Happiness is shortsighted. Joy is forward looking. Happiness sees in the here and now. Joy is concerned less about the moment and more about tomorrow. Joy comes from sacrifice and patience. Happiness wants what it wants when it wants it. Happiness is tossed about like waves on the ocean and is as unpredictable as the weather. Joy can endure no matter the storms of life.
As parents, this first requires teaching our children the difference between joy and happiness. And I’m convinced if we can do that, they’ll spend less, be more confident, make better decisions, and, ultimately, stand a better chance of thriving in this life. But how to go about it? We believe it means using ‘no’ far more than we otherwise could or want to. It means showing that followers, retweets, or likes don’t begin to estimate their value. It means watching, even when it hurts, as they suffer the consequences of unwise choices, and helping them realize pleasure is the child of pain and great good often flows from bad situations. It’s to demonstrate in our own lives the God who has a future for all of us. It’s forcing them to fight more of their own battles, while staying at a distance as they walk down wrong paths because we want them to experience those dead ends, earlier rather than later
To be a parent isn’t easy, anyone saying otherwise isn’t doing it right, or doing it at all. It places us outside our comfort zone, forcing us to look at ourselves and the world around us differently. And to be good at it, to be really good at it, has very little to do with the happiness of a fleeting childhood, but helping them to find the joy in what comes after.