Are we responsible for our children's happiness?


One of the most popular characters of the just released Lego movie is ‘Unikitty’.  She’s a half-unicorn, half-anime kitten who lives in ‘Cloud Cuckoo Land’ where there are rainbows, dancing, puppies and sparkles. Unikitty is relentlessly happy and positive and therefore incredibly annoying.  She’s the diametric opposite of my childhood hero; the grumpy, rude, trashcan-living hoarder, Oscar the Grouch. 

The contrast between them says a lot about middle class parenting of today.

Journalist and writer Jennifer Senior told the ‘All About Women’ festival last weekend she very much doubts a character like Oscar the Grouch would be created now as he’s just too depressing for kids.  Indeed, in some countries’ versions of Sesame Street he has been made less grouchy and more positive.  Senior says such sanitising of children’s entertainment is, in part, a function of the one thing that unites all parents.  As she told the crowd  “no matter what type of parent we are today – hippy, tiger, helicopter or drone – we all agree on one thing: we just want our kids to be happy”.  

She’s right. It’s a chant we hear all the time.  I admit I’ve babbled it myself.  But let me explain why I believe it is part lie, part curse, part danger and part unachievable burden. 


Firstly, we are lying to ourselves.  We don’t just want happiness for our kids. We are obsessed with wanting them to be successful in something.  As Senior’s book All Joy and No Fun points out, middle class parents are carefully cultivating kids to make them viable for a new economy in a changing world.  But because we are preparing them for a future we can’t possibly imagine, we feel we have to cover all bases; for example taking them to learn Mandarin for the dominance of China, chess for analytical skills, sport for teamwork, music for mind, drama for imagination.  

There’s a great side to this - I am constantly astounded at the skill and competence level of the kids of today. It seems we are raising a generation of talented and trained kids. I recently found some old Super 8 movies of my childhood and the skill of my daughter’s netball team compared to mine at the same age is striking.

But there’s a downside and that’s my second point - the backfire.  All these activities and scheduling is expensive, time consuming, exhausting and at times anxiety provoking.  For both parent and child.  I also wonder if it makes them truly value their opportunities. I wouldn’t let my daughter do gymnastics for years because there was no gym close to my house and I don’t believe in driving all over the city for anything but a good feed.  When a gym finally opened, she took to it with the most enthusiasm and hard work she’s shown for anything.   Passion can’t be handed to kids on a plate.  

There’s also a backfire on us.  All this focus on making them happy is making us unhappy.  We have less time, less money, more conflict with our partners and less social life.  With all this scheduling, there’s little spontaneity and socialising for our selves. I’ve just edited my Great-Grandfather’s diary and I’m astounded how much time he spent visiting others.  Now no one with kids seems to ever drop in on anyone for a chat and a play.

The danger in our happiness project is that kids need to feel unhappy. There’s a part in the Lego movie where Unikitty starts feeling rage and fear. She tells herself to ‘stay positive’ but eventually and inevitably she loses it. Our children will all feel existential angst, loss and grief at some stage in their lives.  In preparation, we need to allow them to express and experience a range of emotions that constitute the complexity of life including fear, failure and sadness. 

Psychologists attending Jennifer Senior’s talk last weekend talked of young clients ill equipped for difficulty and pain.  The Lego movie song  ‘Everything is Awesome’ is another dig on this but please take my word for it, if you hear it, you will never get it’s catchiness out of your brain.  It’s a perfect pop brain worm that will be a huge success.

And here’s my final point about the happiness hum.  It can’t succeed. As Jennifer Senior says ‘happiness is a nebulous and elusive goal’ and it shouldn’t really be a goal at all, more a by-product of a useful, ethical, purposeful and loved life.

And what of our own happiness? Social scientists have shown that parents are no happier than nonparents and in certain cases are considerably less happy. But a more nuanced poll of middle class Americans showed those with kids at home had more highs and more lows than those without children.

Let’s face it: life with kids is intense and yet also, at times, boring and banal. When my kids were younger I felt parenthood was 70% drudgery and 30% pure joy.  I’ve mellowed and recalculated to about 50% drudgery. The other half is a full emotional life with joy, sorrow, pain, heartache, laughter, tears, frustration and fury all felt exquisitely intensely.  

There are several more jokes/digs at middle class parenting in the Lego movie. One involves our addiction to overpriced coffee, another concerns our frustration that kids don’t follow an instruction manual.  But I laughed loudest at the fact the storm troopers of the story are called the ‘micromanagers’.  We need to realise we can’t micromanage our kids lives or indeed their happiness.  So, while I will never stop saying I want my kids to be happy and will do all I can to ensure I am not the source of any unhappiness, I am going to no longer assume it is all my responsibility.  

Besides, Cloud Cuckoo Land gets destroyed about a third of the way into the film.



  • Concentrate first on health and education, then happiness.

    Date and time
    April 08, 2014, 8:14PM
    • It's a question of degree. I've made sure my kids have at least one physical and one mental activity outside school, but I have seen parents who fill their chilldren's hours with a ceaseless flood of activities. Often I think it is to out-source some of their own parental duties.

      Many of these are the raisers of 'boutique' children – Couples with two (generally substantial) incomes, one kid, who go around ceaselessly complaining about the cost of child care and other things they don't actually need.

      Joe the expat
      The Hague
      Date and time
      April 08, 2014, 10:44PM
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