Don’t tell your kids you want them to be happy

By Scott Schimmel

After working with thousands of students for the past few years we have realized that many well-meaning, supportive parents aren’t helping their kids as much as they think they are. About half of the students we work with have clearly received a specific message from their parents that only a defined career path will be acceptable and respected. Half of students have been told they ought to become doctors or lawyers, attorneys or teachers. Since their parents give them specific direction, they feel like they now are under a lot of pressure to live up to their expectations, and fear that they don’t have the capacity and ability to please their parents.

But what about other half? 

They have been given no direction at all- and it’s even harder for them. Their parents tell them a very simple refrain: “We don’t care what you do- we just want you to be happy.” It sounds great, doesn’t it? 

But, telling your kids you want them to be happy actually does more harm than good. 

I get it, though. With three kids, when I imagine their future I don’t feel invested in the kinds of career paths they walk down. I want them to figure out what their talents and interests are, and find a creative way to make money doing something they enjoy. I do NOT want them to feel pressured to please me, or teach them a false social hierarchy that only respects prestigious careers and pursuing wealth and keeping up with the Joneses. 

Here’s why we parents tell our kids we just want them to be happy:

> We really mean it

> We don’t want to put pressure on their kids to live up to false expectations

> We suffered under the expectations our parents put on us, and we want our kids to have a different experience

> We aren’t sure what else to say

> It seems like something we’re supposed to say

> We want them to feel what we do

> We want them to experience and feel what we’ve never felt

> We aren’t sure how to help them find their way

When we work with students who tell us their parents tell them they want them to be happy, they also admit to us that it’s a really frustrating and unhelpful thing to say. Let me repeat that: they don’t like it, nor is it helpful, to tell them you want them to be happy. Why?

> Most parents haven’t helped their kids know what happiness means or looks like- if they don’t see you be happy, they won’t know how to find it

> Kids need honest, unbiased feedback from people who know them well to help them understand who they are, what their talents are, and what they’re capable of

> Kids know they need to find a job someday, they know they need to support themselves financially. That’s already a lot of pressure. They don’t need even more pressure to also find happiness. 

Here’s how you can really help your kids:

  1. Define happiness yourself by discovering what it means and demonstrating it to your kids on a consistent basis
  2. Think reflectively about your kids and what you notice about them. Take notes about what you see in them. Make observations about their talents, when you notice them come alive, and when you observe them suffer through tasks that drain the energy out of them
  3. Set them up with an unbiased but trained guide who can lead them through a process to discover for themselves who they are, what’s most important to them, what kind of life they imagine for the future, and develop a plan to get there

We all want our kids to be happy. We all want them to get off the family payroll someday, too. Do what’s most helpful for your kids- live your life to the fullest, point out in them what you see, and learn to come alongside them in new and different ways. 

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