As I wrote out that title, I realized that it could be understood in two ways. One way would be to emphasize the ‘you,’ in that there is something about you personally that will stop you from making your child happy. The corollary to that is there might be someone else who can. That’s one of every adoptive parent’s fears, isn’t it? That we cannot be everything our child needs. Since I believe that none of us can provide everything another person needs, much less a parent for a child, that is not what I’m writing about. As far as I’m concerned, you are exactly the parent your child needs. Instead, I’m going to focus on the other meaning; the one that emphasizes the word ‘make.’
To make someone happy implies force, coercion, a change from their current state by means of an external force. I know when we talk about making someone happy, that this isn’t really what we mean, but at its root, it does boil down to using external forces to change someone else from their current state of being. If I do _______ for you, then you will be happy. It is a commodity exchange that is often one-sided. It is also rarely successful because happiness doesn’t work that way.
Trying to make someone happy can also be dishonest; it can cheat the other person out of the space needed to process their true emotion. Many people are uncomfortable with negative emotions. Grieving people often hear the phrase, “Aren’t you over it yet?” Traumatized people often hear the phrase, “Aren’t you better yet?” Depressed people often hear the phrase, “Why can’t you just be happy?” If we are constantly trying to make another happy, we negate the true feelings of the other person.
Adoptive parents can be particularly susceptible to this. Our children have experienced losses that many of us have never lived through, but at the same time, we have stepped into being our child’s parents and hope to do a good job— all in an effort to give our child a better future. It can be difficult to walk alongside our children as they process their loss and hurt and pain. It can feel as though we haven’t done enough, or conversely, that our children haven’t appreciated all that we have done for them. Why can’t they be happy? Look at all I’ve given them! Look at all I’ve sacrificed for them! Look how much more they have than they did before!
But happiness isn’t bought with things, nor is it the result of comfort.
Yes, everyone needs the basics of life: enough food, shelter, clothing, stability. But piling on more over and above these basics doesn’t guarantee our happiness. Instead, our happiness is built on other, more intrinsic things, such as connectedness to others, thankfulness, and capability.
Do you want happiness for your children? You cannot make them happy; happiness is an internal reaction to one’s state of being. The only people who can make your children happy are the children themselves. What you can do is help them develop skills and practices that will help them develop their own happiness.
1. Focus on connection. Every human being needs to feel close to and understood by another person. Our children need this from us, their parents. Parenting is about loving the child right in front of you—who they are right now. It is meeting that child’s needs, both emotionally and physically. Connection allows children to feel as though they are known, understood, and loved for who they are. Anyone who feels known and loved and supported is better able to also feel happy.
2. Develop a habit of thankfulness. Being discontent is a sure fire way to not feel happy. Discontentedness keeps us focusing on what we don’t have, how we don’t measure up, and all of the unhappy things that fill our lives, especially if we see others as having the very things we think we desire. Thankfulness is the opposite. Focusing on being thankful helps us to remember what we have and the good things in our lives. Being thankful allows us to stop focusing on ourselves, and instead to focus on other people. Thankfulness is a habit that is learned, though. If we truly want our children to be thankful for what they have, they are going to have to see us, their parents, model that same thankfulness.
3. Provide meaningful work. Everyone longs for work that has meaning. This is as true for children and teens as it is for adults. Are we allowing our children to feel they are a vital, contributing part of our family? Do we encourage them to volunteer their time to help others? I’ve got news for you. Completing homework does not count as meaningful work. Our children need to feel their contributions are important to the success of something bigger than themselves.
4. Create competency. Feeling as though one has the ability to do something they want can also contribute to feelings of happiness. The problem with developing competency is that in order to get there, a whole lot of failing has to happen first. This is not something parents are always comfortable with. Yet, failing, trying again and maybe again, and then finally succeeding are invaluable lessons. It teaches that failing at something is not the end of the world.
5. Inspire curiosity. The world is a fascinating place with so much in it that it cannot all be learned or experienced in just one lifetime. Yet, so many people walk around without any sense of curiosity. They have become numb to the wonder about them. A person interested and curious about the world around him or her will be open to learning new things. Their brains will be active. Life will not become dull because there will always be new things to learn and experience. Be curious yourself and model curiosity for your child.
While all these habits can contribute to one’s happiness, they don’t guarantee it. Ultimately, the choice to be happy lies within the person themselves. Parents can help create a mindset that leans towards happiness, but they cannot make their child happy.