Should ‘Happy Kids’ Be Our Parenting Goal?

I really have no clue what is gonna work when it comes to parenting. I can do trial and error or get loaded down with all the ever-changing statistics; google science, and unwelcome advice available from my local grocery store cashier. At the end of the day, almost every experienced mother will tell you to just go with what your instinct tells you about motherhood. 

The problem is sometimes my instinct is wrong. Sometimes my instinct gets really frazzled and instantly seeks the path of least resistance – the easy and fastest way out of any uncomfortable situations (as I have learned, these are classic Type Nine Problems).

Uncomfortable situations are pretty tricky to avoid when raising toddlers. After all, their brain isn’t fully developed and reasonable logic falls to ‘caveman’ status rather than ‘mature rational adult’. This is pretty evident when I reflect on some situations that upset my toddlers. You know, things like offering to zip up their sweater, or taking their boots off ‘the wrong way’, or saying no to watching Team Hotwheels on repeat. When I step back and watch my kids I can just see all the emotions swishing and sloshing as they navigate through the hurdles to get what they want, when they want it, how they want it.

And here is where one of (my/the) hardest parts of parenting a toddler comes in. These difficult emotions make me uncomfortable. My kid is freaking out at their sibling for looking at them; they are screaming beside the tub that they don’t want to have a bath and later don’t want to leave; they are crying that it’s bedtime but are so clearly exhausted.  Their emotions are messy and being tossed around without constraint.

The CostumesWe Wear (1)

The worst is in a public setting. Especially a setting with other moms and toddlers; where every mom wants their kid to maintain composure and every toddler wants what the other one has. This is probably the time we are most uncomfortable with their difficult emotions and rush to restore peace and cooperativeness without thinking much about what they are going through or teaching them to cope with the discomfort.

Sure this might look good on Instagram, but because there is no audio you miss the melodramatic spat the older two are getting into over who gets the blue scrub brush….#toddlerlogic

My instinct is to dismiss their fits and outburst with ‘you’re fine’, ‘get over it’ and hastily usher them to a happier tone – but that is for my comfort. My ultimate comfort as a parent is a happy, cooperative, occupied child. After all, isn’t a quiet, occupied and friendly kid a happy kid? Doesn’t a happy kid mean I’m a successful parent?

three toddlers

That is the motive behind all our parenting, our kids’ happiness, seeing them smile is what we live for. Yet it can’t be the daily marker for successful parenting. As Jennifer Senior notes, constant happiness is a lot of unrealistic pressure for the parents…and the kids.

We can have all sorts of beliefs around pursuing happiness and it is a real buzzword these days. Happiness at its core is the natural reaction when life is exactly as we want it (which to a toddler means never saying no to their demands and wishes, ever). Who has that every day? Should we teach them to pursue happiness at all costs?

Happiness is amazing when it happens, but teaching kids to pursue happiness can come at a cost to their emotional development, or to others, or our health, or our wallets. If we all did whatever made us happy in life there would be a lot more eating tubs of icing for dinner, shopping sprees, avoiding the hard tasks in life and generally ignoring our problems…so basically me from ages 20-24. Just saying.


what do we teach them about the pursuit of happiness
‘That time Dad went to work without opening the new PB jar and now we are locked out of PB&J for lunch because mom is a wimp’ AKA ‘no YOU have no upper body strength!!’

What if we don’t get what would make us happiest?

What if circumstances aren’t ideal?

What should we feel then?

It is something that I’ve learned to dive into as a new mom: contentment. Letting yourself find and feel joy even in difficult situations; changing what is in your power to change and not acting like a jerk even when conditions aren’t perfect. It must be learned and continually relearned as we go through harder circumstances.

Contentment is a life skill that will likely make us more emotionally stable, successful and capable than the pursuit of happiness.

I know I’m not alone when my parenting goal is to maintain happiness at a tolerable decibel and secure radius.  I hustle any discomfort out the door without question or concession and expect my toddlers to find happiness in the majority of circumstances that wouldn’t even make adults very happy. What am I teaching them though? I should be guiding them through this discomfort; it is inevitable in life. I should be encouraging them to find contentment, joy and gratitude when life isn’t going their way and they can’t have the blue truck that their frenemy is playing with.

I’m not here to give you advice or a lesson on emotional coaching. I’m just here to say that we can all give ourselves a little break today. Parenting is uncomfortable, toddlers are reckless and unreasonable with their emotions and we have to parent through this discomfort rather than constantly hustle for happiness. We don’t have to fix everything: right away, the best way, the happiest way. We can all be a little uncomfortable sometimes, and that is okay.


8 thoughts on “Should ‘Happy Kids’ Be Our Parenting Goal?”

  1. ” We don’t have to fix everything: right away, the best way, the happiest way. We can all be a little uncomfortable sometimes, and that is okay.” That is so true, and we don’t need to feel guilty when we have to disappoint them sometimes. But I know how hard it is as a parent. We want them to be happy and not have trouble, but I think by helping them through those times we are better preparing them for life as adults.

  2. This makes me think of the advice now being put around to make sure that if you and your spouse/partner have disagreements, to just go ahead and disagree/discuss in front of or with your children, rather than following the old advice of “never let them see you fight”. That children learn valuable life skills and important things from knowing that adults can disagree, even vehemently, and come out of it okay. That they learn important conflict resolution skills when disagreements between adults are handled well.

    I think the same is true of contentment. Our kids learn quickly enough that we are not always happy – they try so hard to fix it if they notice, but how much of that is because they are echoing our attempts to fix -their- unhappy moments?

    When my dad died, my sister couldn’t always hold it together in front of my 7 year old niece. There were a lot of questions to be answered, over and over and over again. One of them was ensuring D knew that her mom was going to be sad for a long time, and that’s okay, and it’s okay for D to be sad, too.

    I think contentment is similar. It’s a life skill that we not only have to model, but talk about, so they know that content isn’t really the same as happy, not exactly. And it shouldn’t be.

  3. If you need me I will be in the bathtub with red wine rewriting my parenting goals. Mind = Blown. Not that I have never heard that we don’t need to fix all of our children’s problems… but I just realized that’s exactly what I do. I dismiss little one’s woes instead of sitting with them and helping them sort out their grief. Alas it is always a process isn’t it?


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