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Perspective | Magazine

Parents’ obsession with raising happy kids is a big problem

Too much focus on our children’s moment-to-moment well-being can actually make them less content. There’s a better way.

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“I just want my kids to be happy.”

It’s a common refrain among well-meaning parents. And there are good reasons, of course, to want that. Happy children, the conventional wisdom tells us, grow into cheerful, healthy, well-adjusted adults. But too much focus on our children’s moment-to-moment well-being can actually make them less content. If we want our children to grow into truly happy adults, we should teach them how to care about other people.

Making Caring Common, the project we lead at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, helps parents and educators raise children who care about others and the common good. In our work over the past decade, we have seen parents, especially those in more affluent communities, increasingly obsessed with their children’s moment-to-moment happiness. These parents often act as “mood police,” obsessively checking in with their children to see how they’re feeling and removing any obstacles to their contentment. Constantly protecting kids from peer conflicts, failure, or other types of adversity can rob them of coping strategies that are crucial to their long-term happiness. These parenting behaviors can also make children hyper-focused on their own needs and less likely to develop the concern for others and the common good that is vital to healthy communities and a just society.

Prioritizing children’s moment-to-moment feelings also does little to help them develop skills, such as empathy and perspective-taking, that research indicates are key to building the relationships that can make us truly happy throughout our lives. An abundance of studies suggests that strong relationships are one of our most vital and durable sources of well-being throughout our lives and are crucial to teens’ development and positive mental health, particularly in early adulthood.

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Yet our research suggests that empathy and caring are not priorities for most young people. In a 2013 survey, we asked 10,000 youth nationwide to rank what was most important to them: achieving at a high level, happiness (feeling good most of the time), or caring for others. Almost 80 percent picked high achievement or happiness as the top choice, while roughly 20 percent chose caring for others. In the years since that survey, we’ve asked tens of thousands more young people the same question, and the results are stunningly consistent.

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To be sure, many young people care a great deal about others. But caring often appears to be subordinate to happiness, and some young people are disturbingly happiness-obsessed. As one survey respondent put it: “If you are not happy, life is nothing. After that, you want to do well. And after that, expend any excess energy on others.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, our research also suggests that children receive messages reinforcing the importance of happiness and achievement from their parents. Eighty percent of the youth we surveyed reported that their parents were more concerned about their happiness or achievement than about whether they cared for others.

So how can parents refocus on caring? We can start by “walking the talk” and sending strong messages to our children through our daily words and actions that caring matters. Children learn caring values and behaviors by observing the behavior of their parents and other adults they respect. We can prioritize caring in our day-to-day interactions with our children by modeling skills like solving conflicts peacefully, effectively managing anger and other difficult emotions, and paying close attention to others. We can be sure to thank the bus driver and a server in a restaurant and redirect our road rage into a calming breath. We can contribute to our communities, our neighborhoods, and our schools, especially through activities that our children can help with. When we make mistakes, we should model honesty, care, and humility by talking to our children about why we think we made the mistake, apologizing, and explaining how we plan to do things differently next time.

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Prioritizing caring also means setting high ethical expectations and holding our children to them. Our kids should be expected to work hard to honor their commitments, do the right thing, and stand up for important principles, even if their peers aren’t — or if it makes them less happy. As parents, we can convey these expectations by asking about and recognizing kind and courageous acts we see in popular media or in our own lives. We can ask teachers and coaches not only about our children’s happiness and successes, but also whether they are good community members. We can encourage our kids to give careful consideration to their responsibilities to their peers even when things get hard — for example, when they find a peer annoying. At home, we can expect them to complete routine chores and to take up other opportunities to contribute to the family.

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Shifting the messages that we send to our children and cultivating their genuine care and concern for others isn’t an easy task. But it is deeply worthwhile. The well-being of our communities and country — and our children’s happiness — depends on it.

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Richard Weissbourd is a senior lecturer and co-director of the human development and psychology program at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the faculty director of Making Caring Common. Alison Cashin is the director of Making Caring Common. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.