Sunday, December 7, 2008

I Don't Want My Children To Be Happy

Before you send in the social workers let me explain. I'm talking about the 'clappy-happy' nonsense that seems to characterise most discussions about children, childhood and child rearing nowadays. It wasn't always like this: our parents and grandparents were encouraged to be 'healthy, wealthy and wise' when they grew up: not happy. And if their children were unhappy because they didn't get what they wanted they were allowed to go away and sulk: parents were their children's parents - not their best friends.

Unfortunately parenting has now become the last bastion of superstitious psycho-babble. Take stress, for example. I only learned recently that the concept of (emotional) stress was 'invented' in the 1950s, by Hans Selye. In other words, my grandparents lived through two world wars (even fighting in the first one) and a Great Depression without knowing they were experiencing stress! Fast forward a century or so and we've gone to other extreme: trying to spare our children any stress - especially the kind that comes from failure. The corollary is the obsession with self-esteem: praising the average as exceptional, and the ordinary as extraordinary. How else to explain the remarkable number of talentless people participating in the likes of the X-Factor? The result is the self-esteem trap:

A growing body of research is finding that praise based on talent and intelligence -- as opposed to effort -- not only doesn't help kids achieve success, it actually backfires.

Children who are praised as smart, special and talented stumble at school when faced with challenges that don't immediately reinforce the mantras they hear at home. They're also more likely to avoid tasks at which they may fail than children who are praised instead for their hard work. And they are more apt to lie and cheat well into their university years.
By insulating our children from real life - now extending into 'adulescence' - we end up producing a generation of wimps. Which is why I admire Edenderry District Court Judge John Neilan for his recent observations about the laws on young people and work:
Stand on street corners, scratch your backside, take drugs but whatever you do, don’t go working. Young people in gainful employment even an hour over time should not be penalised. It’s far, far better to have them working than floating around, standing on street corners, insulting everyone who passes by.
He's right of course. But our cultural obsession with 'only wanting our children to be happy' has gotten to the point where it seems we we don't even want them to work. Mind you, at least we haven't gone as far as the UK: where local government employees are spying on newsagents to make sure they're not 'exploiting' paper boys.

Worse, we're making it too expensive to employ young people. This is one reason why I am against the minimum wage: it is one more barrier in the way of employing young people in the kind of part-time, casual, unskilled work that gets them started (and for which they are especially qualified in the absence of qualifications). As it happens, we have the second highest minimum wage in the EU at €1,462 per month or €8.65 per hour. It is more important that young people work rather than earn a high income - for their own happiness, as it happens. This has been found in yet another study (pdf) of the sources of happiness and life satisfaction:
We have attempted to shed light on the determinants of global life satisfaction, by using both self-reports and responses to a battery of vignette questions. Although more work needs to be done, some preliminary conclusions can be drawn. It appears that the four domains job or daily activities, social contacts and family, health, and income provide a fairly complete description of global life satisfaction. Among the four domains, social contacts and family have the highest impact on global life satisfaction, followed by job and daily activities and health. Income has the lowest impact.
Note, however, that family and social contacts are the greatest influence on life satisfaction. And that tends to be most people's experience. I reckon that happiness is one part pleasure to three parts contentment. The market is superb at looking after our needs for pleasure - whereas contentment comes from a rewarding family life, fulfilling work and the success that comes from engaging with the world around us. Which only goes to show that parents are responsible for their children's happiness, but not in the ways assumed by the nanny state and the nanny media.

Our job as parents, then, is not to ensure that our children are happy, but rather to help them become adults who are capable of successfully negotiating the challenges and opportunities of life as a grown up. And who knows, they might even find happiness in doing so.


  1. Apprently this philosophy is not without blame on the relative performance of boys and girls in school. Back in my day when hard work and performance were mandated we bloody well got on with it or were lifted out of out seats by a persistant tug on the locks of hair near our ears for not learning the irish poem. In the new age class of positive emotions the lads will cheerfully sit back and feel good about scratching their holes while the girls thrive, mainly on competing with each other.

  2. You may also be interested in the research from a select group of Irish academics who've detected an alarming grade inflation in Irish third level institutions which is symptomatic of the sentiments you wrote about in terms of praising the average as exceptional.


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