When I think about what I want for my children sometimes I feel I should be more pushy – get them to apply themselves more, learn more, aim higher. At other times I’m able to take a more relaxed approach – let them find their own passions and interests and let me support them in this, I say to myself.
At these times the over-riding feeling is often, ‘I don’t mind what they choose to do when they grow up – as long as they’re happy.’
On the face of it this attitude seems commendable for many liberal parents, especially those whose own parents had very fixed ideas about ‘acceptable’ jobs and careers.
But underneath the apparently supportive and progressive stance there can be a more subtle, unspoken, pressure. It is something like, ‘Do what you want to do, be who you want to be. But don’t let me down by being unhappy, even if that is what you are feeling.’
Novelist James Runcie, son of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has highlighted the problem when discussing his own experience of being a parent. Saying you don’t mind what your children to as long as they are happy can actually be a very controlling message to give your children, he argues.
This is because it only makes them feel more unhappy when they realise they cannot live up to your unrealistic expectations.
Even with young children there is a danger that they will get the message that it is somehow ‘wrong’ to feel unhappy, upset, angry or lonely.
When my six-year-old son says he is sad because no-one would play with him at school my first reaction is to try and reassure him – ‘I’m sure you’ll find someone to play with tomorrow – let me talk to your teacher in the morning.’
It is much harder for me to simply listen to him and to acknowledge his feelings. There may also be a role for reassurance and practical help, such as helping him develop more social skills.
But if I try to immediately rescue him from his painful feelings too quickly he is less likely to confide in me in the future as he will not have felt genuinely listened to.
It is only when our children feel they are not failures if they are unhappy, upset or sad that they can more authentically experience happiness and fulfilment.
At a deeper level perhaps we need to accept that we cannot control our children’s happiness and that apparent symptoms of unhappiness are not necessarily problems to be ‘fixed’. Instead, as psychologist James Hillman argues, a child’s ‘problem’ of tantrums, shyness or sadness may be expressions of that child’s ‘calling’ or destiny and have some meaning connected to their development that we are unaware of.