Should our goal be to make our kids happy?

The New York Times recently profiled clinical psychologist Dr. Becky, in the article, “Dr. Becky Doesn’t Think the Goal of Parenting Is to Make Your Kid Happy.” Having deleted Instagram from my phone, I have missed following insightful people such as Dr. Becky. However, I have now discovered her podcast, Good Inside, and am thrilled to have her back in my life.

There was something about the way that Dr. Becky said, “You are two independent people” when talking about parents and their kids that really struck a chord for me this week. It’s so easy to feel enmeshed with our kids. To take their behaviors personally, for better and for worse, and see them as a personal reflection of ourselves.

It’s interesting to think back to when my kids were newborns. They were completely dependent on me for everything. However, I didn’t find their cries nearly as triggering. When my kids were crying as newborns, I found myself curious and open, trying my best to meet their needs. Are you hungry, tired, wet, cold, or constipated? Mama’s here, you’re safe. Yet when my four and five year old express frustration through tears, my default is NOT Mama’s here, you’re safe. Sadly, it’s often the opposite. My energy is negative, annoyed, and I find their behavior absolutely triggering. Why is it so much harder to stay curious and calm as our kids get older?

We have two jobs as parents

Dr. Becky reminds me a lot of Tina Payne Bryson and Brene Brown, who also focus on the power of connection. The NYT article says, “The more we focus on becoming happy, the less tolerance we have for distress and the more we search to feel any other way than how we’re feeling — which is the experience of anxiety.” Instead of trying to “make our kids happy,” our goal should be to connect with how they are feeling. In Social Justice Parenting, Dr. Baxley also mentions that the goal is not to raise happy kids but to raise compassionate kids.

Job number 1: Safety

“It’s really our job, as a parent, to set a warm but firm boundary and follow through.”

Dr. Becky Kennedy

As parents, our most important job is to keep our kids safe. I tell my kids this all the time. My kids don’t always agree or understand why I’m putting certain boundaries in place, and that’s OK. My job is to put those boundaries in place in an effort to keep them safe and healthy.

The challenge lies in that my kids’ have a job as well. Dr. Becky reminds us that our kids’ job is to push against these boundaries in order to learn, explore and make sense of the world. This means that they don’t often respond to my boundaries with comments like, Mom, thanks so much mom for not letting me watch too much TV. I really appreciate your boundary around screen time. They often respond with resistance, frustration, and disappointment.

This is where our second job kicks in.

Pretty, Pretty Princess – remember this game?

Job Number 2: Connection

When our kids express their disappointment, my job is not to make them happy by changing my boundary (although oh so tempting as it makes the whining go away faster). My second job comes into play when they express frustration for not getting what they want; I simply need to connect with them. Dr. Becky notes that our job is not to end their disappointment or convince them they are not being logical. It’s to connect by offering empathy and validation.

Ironically, this is actually easier than I initially realized. Before I was reminded that my kids and I are independent people, I was trying to take away their unpleasant feelings. My intentions were good but truthfully it was just as much for my own sake as theirs. However, Dr. Becky reminded me that my job is not to control my kid’s expression. Further, “a good job by a parent is not rewarded by a calm and grounded experience for a child.”

I had the opportunity to practice this the other day. One of my kids was set off by a boundary I put in place. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t take every ounce of my being to hold space for their big feelings. To honor their disappointment. My go to line was, I’m here. You’re safe. Dr. Becky suggests using the following phrases:

  • I know
  • You wish you could…
  • I’m here, I love you
  • We’re going to get through this
  • It’s so hard not to get something you want
  • Get all of those big feelings out

But the lightbulb moment for me was to be reminded that my only job in that moment was to be present with my kids. To provide connection and help them navigate their overwhelming feelings (while also trying to keep the other two children safe…). It wasn’t easy and I wasn’t completely successful. I started off very calm, repeating I’m here. You’re safe, two or three times within a few minutes. However, the results weren’t coming as quickly as I needed them to. I felt my nervous system entering fight or flight and ended up yelling – which also didn’t work.

Emotional Regulation

Dr. Becky noted that this process of holding boundaries and connecting with our kids is how our kids learn emotion regulation. She says that our kids start to think, “ ‘My parent contains me to make sure I’m safe and then within that container my parent offers connection and validation.’ This is how eventually kids learn to calm themselves down. They learn to contain themselves, put up a boundary, and then speak to themselves kindly to calm themselves down.”

I know all of this and yet in those moments of big feelings, it’s SO hard. As I say to my kids, My thinking brain is having a hard time because my overwhelmed brain takes over. One thing that has helped is giving myself a script to use ahead of time. When I’m not in fight or flight mode. To practice my responses, my tone, and my deep breathing when things are calm. Then when I am attempting to do my second job of connection when my kids are around and distressed, I have a fighting chance of leading with connection. I’ll unlikely stay in the connection zen zone the entire time, but I’m going for progress, not perfection. If I can connect for a few more seconds the next time one of my boundaries isn’t well received, I’ll count that as a win.

2 comments

  1. Thank you for this incredibly important message with respect to how to approach kids with empathy when they are doing what’s normal for developing independence, self-reliance and self-confidence in exploring boundaries that are imposed from without. Once again you share personal experiences to demonstrate how difficult and frustrating it may be as a parent yet ultimately satisfying and rewarding when your child succeeds in eventually arriving at the desired outcome.

    The title to your blog reminds me of a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
    Ralph Waldo Emerson

    • I have recently discovered Dr. Becky, too, and only wish I’d had her 36 years ago when I began my adventure in parenting. But it’s never too late to learn and understand the power of simply connecting, honoring others’ feelings, and expressing empathy. As you said, it’s about progress, not perfection.
      And, John, I love that Emerson quote. Thank you.

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