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Happy


3/4s teacher Jenn Drake offers insight on the importance of experiencing a full range of emotions. She explains that while feelings of disappointment aren’t ideal, they can teach us ways to overcome challenges.  -Ed.

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I do a lot of talking with parents.  The phrase, “I just want them to be happy,” comes up over and over again.  As a parent myself, I can relate. There’s nothing else that lights up my own heart than hearing that belly-laugh from my daughter.  It makes me feel good to get her a little trinket that I know she’ll treasure. But there’s something about those seven little words that I find bothersome.  I’m not advocating that we ignore our desires to make our kids happy, nor that we shouldn’t feel good when they do. But I think there’s a lot more to teaching children than trying to ensure their everlasting happiness.

For one thing, people experience a range of emotions – all of which are healthy and important for us to feel, no matter how unpleasant or inconvenient.  For another, there’s a lot to learn from our frustrations, disappointments, failures, and unfulfilled dreams. Our kids need us to model how to deal with these bumps in the road and give them strategies for facing them.  I was inspired by psychologists Donald Akutagawa and Terry Whitman, referenced in Wendy Mogel’s The Blessing of a Skinned Knee.  They say, “Humans are the only creatures that devote energy to making their offspring ‘happy.’  The rest of the animal kingdom is devoted to fostering competence to survive in the world.” That gave me a lot to think about.  If you can’t handle when things go wrong, you aren’t going to be competent in the world.

When I think about that – about how my job is to foster children’s competence to survive in the world – it changes the way I feel about “just wanting them to be happy.”  When a third grader has to wait to go to recess in order to have a chat with the teacher about a missing assignment, the child’s emotion is sure to be one of annoyance and disappointment.  And in those moments, a lesson is being learned about responsibility and accountability and consequences. It’s not awful, but it’s not happy.

When I really try to imagine my own child as a grown-up, I want her to know how to take care of herself.  I want her to seek challenges and bounce back when she doesn’t get what she wants or has worked for. It’s got nothing to do at all with whether or not she’s happy and everything to do with her just going for it again and again and again.  That outcome doesn’t come from clearing every hurdle out of her way now, no matter how badly I want to hear her laugh and see her be happy. Going for “just wanting to see her happy” is a short-cut because it’s easier now – and that’s not going to help in the long run.

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/201106/parenting-disappointment-is-good

It’s so important to remember that when we scurry around trying to make our kids feel better and be happy all the time, we’re doing them a disservice.  The section about protecting kids from disappointment resonated. If we try to convince them that everything’s alright and try to fix the hurts, we’re sending our kids the message that they can’t handle the disappointment.  That’s not fair to kids! Disappointment is part of life. By helping our kids to acknowledge this and stay focused on their goals, we’re better preparing them for life beyond childhood. Thanks for this perspective!

Jenn Drake, UCDS Teacher