“My son is so emotional all the time. He’s angry, then he’s sad, then he’s excited. I can’t keep up,” said one friend. “I’m wondering if he needs therapy.”
“My daughter spends most of her time reading in her room,” said a different friend on a different day. “Do you think she’s okay? Should I make her spend more time with friends?”
Over coffee, a third friend confided that she’s started tracking how often her son smiles. “He just doesn’t seem happy,” she said, “and I don’t know what to do.” I nodded, thinking of how closely I too monitor my kids’ moods.
Of course we parents want our children to be happy. But behind our worries is an unspoken assumption of what a happy childhood looks like: some variation of a soft-focus laundry detergent commercial, golden sunlight in a grass-filled backyard, curly-haired children waving from a rope swing, beaming out at a benevolent world. When our children’s lives don’t look like that—when they are sad or sullen or angry—we decide there is something wrong with them. Or something we’re doing wrong with as parents.
It’s complete bullshit.
Imagine being a child in today’s world. You have little control over how you spend your time; you are shuttled from a mind-numbing seven-hour school day to after-school care or “enrichment activities” and, when that’s over, someone insists you do homework or chores. You rarely have a say in what you eat, what you wear, when you wake up, or where you go. The rules are baffling: Why do I have to sit while doing homework when I think better standing up? Why do I need to fold my shirt when I don’t care if it’s rumpled? Why do I have to be nice to Aunt Maria when she clearly doesn’t like me? You are regularly flummoxed by social dynamics because you’re still learning how to read people: Is my best friend angry at me or just tired? Did they mean that or are they teasing me? Your body doesn’t work the way you want yet, and it’s constantly changing; as soon as you get used to where your feet are, they move further away. You live with surging tides of emotion that you don’t know how to suppress or even name. You have no mask or hardened shell to protect yourself.
People with power over you are always ordering you to change: speak up, be quiet, chew with your mouth closed, sit up straight, pick that up, put that down, stop it, hurry up. Someone is often huffing exasperatedly, frustrated because you are too small, too slow, too squirmy, too something. On top of everything else, your parent is constantly hovering over you, brow furrowed, earnestly evaluating whether you’re “happy.”
Being a child is frustrating, befuddling, exhausting and frightening.
Kind of like being an adult.
What if we acknowledged that? What if we were okay that our kids don’t seem “happy” all the time? Kids are humans—a fact that we parents are prone to forgetting—and being a human is hard, messy work. It’s full of joy, pain, fear, love, connection, uncertainty, contentment, pride, self-doubt, compassion, jealousy, loneliness, laughter, grief, disappointment, shame, and unspeakable beauty. And every once in awhile, when you’re lucky and the stars align and your mojo’s rising, it is happy. Our kids should feel like those laundry-soap commercial kids sometimes. Maybe about as often as we feel like the people in shampoo ads.
Obviously, if your child has tried to hurt themselves, snatch up your beloved one and run to a therapist’s office (or the emergency room). If they are struggling with everyday activities, such as refusing to go to school or do homework, or if their mood or personality has shifted significantly, make an appointment. But in the absence of such alarming behavior, consider whether the issue is something less urgent and catastrophic: your child is struggling to navigate the complexities of life as a human being.
What would happen if we let go of this painfully unattainable vision of childhood happiness? What would our job be as parents, if we take away the pressure to curate an unbroken strand of Instagram-perfect memories for our children to carry into adulthood? To provide a safe childhood, obviously, to the extent we have any control over that. To provide a loving childhood, which includes forgiving ourselves on those days when we hate our kids just a little for any number of reasons. To help them find moments of joy and laughter and silliness and fun. To teach them tools to handle the inevitable dark parts: self-knowledge, self-care, self-control, social cues, gratitude, resilience.
This is where therapy might come in. There are tools to handle these darker parts of life and our kids need help learning them, just like they need help learning table manners and geometry. If you’re not facile with these tools yourself, or if you don’t know how to teach them to your child, a therapist can help. But therapy cannot ever “make them happy.”
And neither can you.
So let that go.
At the end of the day, we want our children to be prepared for the roller-coaster of adulthood, both the darkness and the light. Which children will be better prepared: those whose parents set-designed a fictional world of never-ending happiness or those whose parents taught them to lash together a raft and ride out the inevitable storm? The answer is obvious.