As we approach a new year, and you spend time with family and friends for the holidays, you might be considering some new goals for your children.  It is beneficial to have some consistent strategies for the diverse little personalities in your life.  However, parenting strategies can be highly confusing.  It wasn’t until I had my first baby that I realised that there is practically a war on the internet between those who advocate ‘demand feeding’ and those who advocate aiming to create feeding routines – and that’s just the advice for the first year of your child’s life.  People get highly defensive, I think, because everyone wants to believe they are doing the very best for their child.  

The one mantra all parents can agree on is “I just want my child to be happy”. Yet, ironically maybe the reason parenting has become so needlessly stressful for many couples is that we are so focussed on “happiness” as a goal for our children.  Is happiness achieveable as a focus in itself? Is it something parents even have the capability or means to be achieve for their children?  It is in reality much too elusive a thing for parents to justly be held responsible for.

Believe it or not, happiness is a relatively recent focus for humanity (or at least the West) and dates from the 17th and 18th centuries.  A few months ago I read a fascinating book called “A History of Happiness” which is a good discussion of ideas of ‘happiness’ and it’s achieveability dating back to ancient times.  It argues that, in reality, true happiness is just a byproduct of other things – not a fit goal in inself.  We know from our own lives that it is often a byproduct of work, discipline, sacrifice – even pain.  The 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill once said, “Ask yourself whether you are happy, and you cease to be so.”   Perhaps there is some truth in this.  Today, science is rediscovering the validity of ancient perspectives on happiness.  We are becoming more aware that there are important connections between happiness and hope, gratitude, forgiveness, goals and altruism.  

It is arguably constantly pursuing a ‘happiness’ goal that is to blame for parents feeling that they need to give each of their children so many material things and prepare them for so many possible futures.  We might worry too much about whether feeding, playing or discipline strategies make our children feel good in the moment, or feel that we need to have more than enough money for each child to cater for all the after school activities that will give them the right skills for their futures and keep up with what ‘so&so’ gets to do.  

As a result, many couples feel that they can only afford both the money and the time to have a very limited number of children.  It might be worth adding here that we also worry about all the sacrifice we as parents might have to make and how this will affect our own happiness.  All this worry and research certainly makes parenting more stressful than it arguably needs to be.  

Jennifer Senior makes the point in the Ted Talk copied below that we are much better off focussing on the morality of our children and the productive contributions they make to society, than on their ‘happiness’ (it is about about 18 minutes long and worth a look).  If we do this, they have a much better chance of actually being happy, and it might make parenting a little bit simpler as well.

Shannon Roberts

Shannon Roberts is co-editor of MercatorNet's blog on population issues, Demography is Destiny. While she has a background as a barrister, writing has been a life-long passion and she has contributed...