Is Happiness What We Really Want for our Children?

Principals Pen Wednesday, 21 Apr 2021

What do you want most for your child’s future? If you answered ‘happiness’, you are not alone. It would be hard to find a single parent who doesn’t want their child to be happy. But what makes a happy child? And is happiness what we really want for our children?

Happiness is fleeting. It’s mostly a short-term emotion that comes and goes. It’s often attached to a feeling or sensation and is usually dependent on circumstances or external influences out of our control. Happiness can be derived, for example, from eating a piece of chocolate cake or from scoring the perfect weather for a planned outdoor event. Happiness can be crushed, however, when the chocolate cake drops to the ground or when rain destroys the picnic. Happiness can leave us feeling empty.

Joy, on the other hand, is like happiness on steroids. It is a deep and strong sense of being that endures regardless of external influences. Joy is not shaken by frustrations or disappointments. Joy is typically triggered through purpose and fulfilment and is often born through struggle. We experience joy when we trust God in all circumstances. Centrepoint Church writes, ‘Joy does not mean we do not experience happiness, sadness, pain and grief. While happiness only has room for one feeling, joy has room for a multitude of feelings. One can experience joy in the middle of grief, during heartache and while in pain.’

There are two ways we can foster joy in children.

1. Normalise Struggle

We can make the mistake of trying to protect children from anything that makes them unhappy. Protecting or rescuing children from struggle, disappointment and uncomfortable or sad situations might be a good strategy for an hour or maybe a day of happiness, but the long-term effect is that we rob children of the opportunity to develop the emotional resilience to cope with the inevitable challenges of life. At the extreme, it’s well documented that this can lead to anxiety and depression.

It’s essential that we let children experience ups and downs, so they grow in their ability to bounce back as life’s challenges become greater in later years. It can be hard to see children experience lows, but if we are focussed on the end game – that is, nurturing children to become strong, resilient and joy-filled adults – we need to put our short-term solutions (as well as our own anxiety and feelings of the need to help or rescue) aside and, instead, journey through the lows with our children, encouraging them along the way, and celebrating and reflecting with them as they come out the other side.

2. Put Others First

Giving children the opportunity to recognise what the world needs and guiding them to determine the gifts and talents they have to meet these needs is a path to joy.

We have a responsibility to teach children that the world is much larger than us. In response to God’s love for us and for the sake of justice for all, we are called to respond to the needs of others selflessly and without expectation of recognition or reward. In Lutheran schools, we call this service learning.

Studies show that responding to the needs of others is directly associated with increased well-being and self-esteem, and lower stress levels and depression. Further, if the motivation for responding to the needs of others is self-sacrificing (rather than for personal benefit), research shows it can lengthen a person’s life by lowering the risk of premature death by between 16% and 31% (depending on which study you read).

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- Jane Mueller, Principal