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  • Dr. Elaine Heffner: Happiness is ...

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  • Are your children happy? Many parents are concerned about this question, and one often hears them say, “I just want him/her to be happy.” Happiness appears to be a central goal of our culture, with the meaning of “the pursuit of” either omitted or misunderstood. Popular literature for parents gives prescriptions for child-rearing that supposedly will lead to happiness.
    It is interesting, therefore, to see suddenly a concern with the impact children have on their parents, and the question raised as to whether or not children make parents happy. The Pew Research Center has explored the relationship between parenthood, marriage and happiness. In asking parents to rate the job they were doing raising their children, those who gave themselves a high rating as parents were among the most likely to say they were very happy with their lives. It seems that feeling oneself to be a good mother or father is a significant factor in feeling happy with one’s life.
    There is no doubt that feeling successful contributes to feeling good about oneself. If feeling like a success as a mother or father is key, what is it that stands in the way of achieving that feeling? The focus on whether children make parents happy may be as misguided as parents’ worries about whether they are making their children happy.
    The examination of children’s impact on parents is a recent phenomenon. In an earlier time, the question of the impact of either on the other was completely irrelevant. But as families became smaller and children played less of an economic role in the family, these factors and others contributed to an interest in child development. This put a focus on the way parents shaped the development of their children, without consideration of the role of children in this process.
    In recent years, much research has shifted attention to the interactions between parents and children, examining the ways in which children elicit parental responses through their behavior. Beginning in infancy some babies are more challenging than others. New parents are faced with the challenge of coming to know and respond to their own baby rather than some inner expectation, or prescription in a book.
    As children grow, the challenges increase. Babies become toddlers, toddlers become pre-schoolers, each stage bringing new skills, new assertions of autonomy, and new responses required of parents. Parents face the challenge of socializing children who start with the pleasure principle, and need to learn that others must be considered as well as themselves. It is the job of parents to teach them that in accordance with their developmental capabilities, while at the same time respecting their feelings and wishes when possible.
    Living successfully with others is a major challenge in itself, and living with children is doubly hard because it entails living with young people who are not yet able to carry out their part of the process. Children can be mercurial in their emotions and in the feelings they express to their parents. Parents need to consider those feelings without taking them at face value, or as a true reflection of themselves as parents. Interactions with children put us in touch with our own emotions as children provoke us by their behavior, and with the challenge of responding appropriately.
    Page 2 of 2 - Most of us do not start out knowing how to do all this. We learn from our children, just as they learn from us. The learning process working for both may be the real success that leads to parental happiness – and ultimately, it may lead to children’s happiness as well.
    Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: the Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: the Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at www.goodenoughmothering.com.
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