If I had a nickel for every time a parent has told me, “All I want is for my child to be happy” — I’d be able to retire.
Interestingly, when I ask those parents’ kids if they are happy, most look at me and shrug their shoulders. That’s not too encouraging.
I’ve listened to thousands of kids over the years and given this simple question a lot of thought. I believe those kids have given me a pretty clear answer and it will surprise you. Great parenting, it turns out, is simple, but it’s hard.
Happy kids are those whose parents have answered three very simple questions for them.
Don’t take for granted how tricky these can be to answer. Here they are.
1.) Mom or Dad: What do you believe about me? A child’s identity is largely shaped by scouring his parent for clues regarding what that parent believes about him. He gathers the clues, internalizes them and voila- his identity is beginning to shape. You know this well. If your parents communicated that you were stupid, then you were (and still feel that way.)
Your child needs to know that deep in your heart, you believe that he is valuable, lovable — and that you are delighted to be his mother. Period. He doesn’t want to know that you believe he’s an excellent student, athlete or trombone player. These are nice but here’s the catch: He needs to perform to get them. This makes your belief in his goodness conditional. We are terrific at giving conditional approval. Your son wants to know he’s valuable because he is your son.
2.) Mom or Dad: How do you really feel about me? Every parent would quickly respond that she loves her child. But if you ask that child if his mother loves him, he may very well say, “Yeah. I guess. She has to — she’s my Mom.” I know this because I regularly ask kids who in their lives loves them.
Good parents never take for granted that their kids know deep down that they love her. So you need to say it. You need to show it with affection and praise her during moments when your she feels like a failure. Again, the “I love you’s” come easily after your daughter’s just gotten straight A’s. But how about after a hard earned round of C’s? Make sure that your son or daughter knows that no matter what she does in her life- even if she sits in a closet for her remaining years- that your love is unshakable.
3.) Mom or Dad: What are your hopes for me? When a parent dreams with her child about his future it communicates several important things. First, that the parent believes that he is capable of succeeding in life. Second, it encourages him to plow through difficult times to get past them into a brighter future. Finally, it gives your child an important perspective on his lives. When a parent discusses his future and its possibilities, the child learns to work toward a long-term goal. This is extremely important because kids- even teens- usually think about their lives until they are about 25. After that, many believe, life gets boring. Make sure your child knows better.
Kids think and feel deeply. Every child needs to have these three fundamental questions clearly answered — usually over and over — in order to have a deep sense of security. You know this because you were a child once. You didn’t care how many piano lessons your parents signed you up for or how they got you a tutor to make you smart. Unfortunately, we have become pros at creating impressive portfolios for our kids but poor at really loving them and giving them meaningful happiness.
So let’s stop. Let’s get about the business of giving our children a sense of value, the knowledge that they are loved for being alive and that each one, indeed, has a good future.
Then we will have genuinely happy kids.
Dr. Meg Meeker has practiced pediatrics and adolescent medicine for more than 30 years. She is the author of the best-selling book “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters,” as well as a number of digital parenting resources and online courses, including The 12 Principles of Raising Great Kids.