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November 17, 2009

By Mary Beth Osoro

“My goal isn’t to teach your child how to be happy. My goal is to help your child learn how to be unhappy in a productive manner.”

That has become my catch phrase while talking to parents when they mention their desire for their child’s happiness. And who wouldn’t want their child to be happy? Every parent I have ever worked with or talked to wants this for his or her child. Funny thing is, because parents focus so much on happiness, they can miss teaching their children the key elements that actually contribute to happiness. And even more interesting is that what can contribute to happiness sometimes involves actually being unhappy for a while.

I was listening to NPR and caught an interview with Richard Weissbourd, child and family psychologist who is on faculty at Harvard and author of The Parents We Mean to Be. He argues that developing our children’s morality will better help them navigate through the troubles of life rather than simply teaching them to be happy. Happiness does not always equal making healthy choices or promote well-being. For example, choosing what makes me happy may negatively affect others around me. Weissbourd identified if we help children develop healthy skills in order to manage their emotions, develop a commitment to values that provides moral motivation and develop a strong sense of self in addition to a desire to care for others, then we are setting them up for not only a happy life, but a moral one as well.

There is such a thing as healthy amounts of painful emotions (aka unhappiness) such as anxiety, guilt and fear. Being able to feel and tolerate and ultimately deal with these emotions is important in one’s growth process. Often times parents try to take away a child’s painful emotions, which ends up robbing the child of learning how to manage emotions and feel a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy for working through such a difficult situation. Weissbourd agrees, “Many of us slip into habits in the name of promoting happiness—such as regularly monitoring and seeking to adjust our children’s mood, organizing our lives too much around our children and praising them too frequently—that are likely to make children not only less moral, but ironically, less happy.”

Shifting focus from achieving happiness to achieving enduring well-being might be more sustainable. One can’t always be happy, but one can be practicing qualities that are key to maintaining well-being and a moral lifestyle. Weissbourd identifies these qualities as “the ability to balance and coordinate our needs with others, to be reflective and self-critical—to fairly and generously assess our behavior—to receive feedback constructively, and to change our behavior based on our own and others’ assessments.”

At Pacific Quest, each student gets the opportunity to learn and be challenged to practice all of the qualities listed above. They are provided a stable environment with copious support to do so. I think the harder part of the process is helping the parents do the same in an environment with less support and structure. In many ways, the kids get the easy end of the deal. For children to embrace these qualities within themselves, however, their parents must not only teach them, but value and role model them as well. Sometimes that requires us adults to sit with the unhappiness, and that’s hard to do!

So maybe it’s time for a new catch phrase: “My job is not to make you happy, but to help you be unhappy in a way that your child can learn from and model themselves after.” Hmmm…I wonder if it will catch…

Blogger’s are catching on to Weissbourd’s work. Check out the Harvard blog and the Psychology Today blog to learn more about his ideas.