Be Happy or Else! Why we should stop regulating our kids and let them work it out for themselves.

Happiness is a big seller these days. As a society, we’ve decided that it’s the ultimate goal. We no longer need to spend our time simply making ends meet, now we need to put food on the table and be happy ALL THE TIME.

The more I think about this, the more ridiculous I realise it is. Of course it’s great to laugh and feel good. It’s super to have no worries and while the day away in the sunshine. But even when you’re in the sunshine on a tropical island vacation, does your brain suddenly switch modes and register happiness? I don’t think so.

Be Happy or Else

I read an interview in Slate yesterday with Jennifer Senior, author of the book All Joy and No Fun. The book is an analysis of why most parents in our society are purportedly less happy than our childless counterparts. The idea that struck me most is that since we no longer have children for economic reasons – that is, to help on the farm or by sending them off to apprentice in a trade – our children no longer have a function. As a result, parents have a tendency to pin their own aspirations onto their children, and work to make our kids happy and fulfilled.

Why is this so crazy? Because you can’t make someone happy. You can give someone the world and they will still want the stars. No matter how much we try to shove happiness down our kids’ throats, they still won’t be satisfied. And we’ll just end up miserable.

I am partially writing this as an extremely tired mom who lost her cool this morning. But as of this moment, I resign from the role of mother as entertainer, intervener and constant consoler. I will do my best to provide my children with fascinating environments (i.e. an amazing garden to explore) but I will not hold their hands as they navigate through it.

Kids are supposed to cry and hurt themselves and be afraid. It’s how they learn. Shadowing them through their daily lives, structuring their play, intervening every time another child does something to upset them, certainly can’t be equipping them for future success.

Get Rid of the Rules!

Another article I happened upon in my morning reading came from the New Zealand news. There is a school in Auckland where they have done away with playground rules. Kids are allowed to climb trees, ride skateboards – generally run amok – during break times. And you know what? The kids hurt themselves less, the school has seen a drop in bullying and vandalism, and the kids are concentrating better in class.

While many of the teachers were horrified with the idea at first, a year into this university experiment they have discovered that (gasp!) letting the kids use their imaginations and play however they like means that they are so busy playing that fewer teachers need to patrol the yard. They also no longer need a timeout area, because the kids are resolving their own conflicts.

Instead of a playground, children used their imagination to play in a “loose parts pit” which contained junk such as wood, tyres and an old fire hose.

“The kids were motivated, busy and engaged. In my experience, the time children get into trouble is when they are not busy, motivated and engaged. It’s during that time they bully other kids, graffiti or wreck things around the school.”

It’s not rocket science. But we have become so programmed to intervene (read: interfere) in every aspect of our kids’ lives that leaving a bunch of grade schoolers to patrol themselves seems crazy. But wait a minute. Isn’t that what kids used to do? Our parents’ generation used to play outside, on the street, with no rules and no intervention. Generally the only instructions they had were to be home by suppertime.

Even when I was a kid we spent loads of time exploring. I recall countless unsupervised hours – both in South Africa and Canada – playing in the bush around our holiday house or in the ravines in our neighbourhood. Adults were never far away, but they weren’t within sight either. They certainly weren’t intervening in our games, and I can’t remember a teacher patrolling the playground either. If someone hurt herself (badly) during break time, another kid would go running for help.

They’re not happy; I’m not happy

I now have two children and have spent more hours than I can count at playgrounds. From the time they can walk we are guiding our kids through these safety-approved metal and plastic and wooden structures, jumping to their aid the minute something seems dangerous. And a lot of us feel resentful while we’re doing it. I should be making supper right now. I need to fold the laundry. I need to send an email. The number of moms I see playing with their phones at the park is staggering. Yet, there we are, feeling like we’re having our evenings stolen from us and simultaneously hating ourselves for not wanting to spend every waking moment with our kids.

This is totally messed up. We are certainly not doing our kids any favours by coddling them and feeling resentful while we’re at it. We should give ourselves all a break from the constant struggle toward happiness and just accept that sometimes life is tough. Letting your kid entertain himself, letting him hurt himself and cry a bit, telling him to go and play and no, you’re not going with him, might be the best thing you can for do him, and yourself, in the long run.

Getting to a Happy Place

I’m a pretty content adult. I have my ups and downs, but overall I’m resourceful and willing to face the odds, no matter what comes my way. I certainly didn’t become this person because I had an easy ride. Looking back on my thirty years of life, I’d say that many of the most important years were those when I was miserable or things were particularly difficult.

I wouldn’t have empathy if I hadn’t felt the wrath of bitchy little girls. I wouldn’t be as creative if I hadn’t spent years existing in my own fantasy world because I was too scared to make friends in case they ditched me again. I wouldn’t be so outgoing if I hadn’t been forced to make new friends every time we moved. Being a kid is awesome and terrible, and I think a lot of us parents forget it.

So I’m going to try harder to remember. I’m going to stop myself from intervening when Charlie and April start slapping and pushing each other. I’m going to encourage April to play outside alone, even if she’s afraid because “she forgets that her imagination isn’t real.” I’m not going to feel so guilty when the girls cry and wail when I drop them off at daycare – especially as I know that they stop fussing within minutes.

From today I am going to step back and let my kids regulate themselves more because chances are, the less I interfere, the more capable they will become and the less frustrated I will feel when they don’t listen to a word I say.

Such an incredible imagination. Now if only April would play in the far reaches of the garden without my supervision.
Such an incredible imagination. Now if only April would play in the far reaches of the garden without my supervision.

1 Comment

  1. My sentiments exactly. You wrote it perfectly 🙂

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