Do parents care about their children's happiness? I think it's an easy answer to say overwhelming they do, very much so. And yet, they don't necessarily prioritize it in the daily lives of their children.
I feel like a lot of parents erroneously believe that academic success will lead to happiness, and that if they can just keep their kids on the "right" path they will eventually be happier for it. This belief in future gains lets them absolve themselves of the need to make sure that their kids are happy NOW.
While there are plenty of people out there who will inform you with great indignation that kids these days want everything now, I think it’s actually the reverse: our society has a delayed gratification problem. We’ve come to believe that happiness is something best deferred to a later, more convenient time and date. After school hours. After you’ve finished your homework. On the weekend. During summer vacation. In your one week of vacation from work. After retirement…
Capitalism has forced this situation onto people in a material way, but too many have also internalized it, and come to take a strange sort of pride in stealing joy from themselves, in working hard not only out of necessity or for a worthy goal, but treating constant busyness, productivity, and even stress as some type of merit badge: proof they’ve earned their place in this world through labour.
This attitude is then extended to children. They, too, are treated as if they have to earn their joy, their free time, their play, their right to make their own choices. Happiness is something you only get to experience once you’ve done everything “essential,” a situation made even worse by the fact that judgement of just what IS essential is always made by the adults in a child’s life, not the child themselves.
This could be the place to point out that, as Jean Piaget said, play is the work of childhood. I could point to research that free play improves children’s social skills and grades. But to do so seems to be using the logic of a toxic culture in order to justify healthy, essential human behaviour that doesn’t--or certainly shouldn’t--need any justification. When we make those types of arguments, it allows us to stay safely inside the framework of our current system, which is why I think we have to go deeper than that, and question why it is we’ve been taught to value productivity (sometimes masquerading as “good grades,” “good jobs,” “hard work,” and “success”) above all else.
We are not placed on this Earth to serve the interests of billionaires, we do not need to prove ourselves worthy of simply existing, and children should never have to meet adult demands in order to earn what they should be able to enjoy freely.
I don’t pretend to know the steps necessary in dismantling capitalism, but I do think part of it has to be examining the ways we’ve internalized and enacted ideas which are actively harmful to ourselves, our communities, and the environment. We need to start sorting out what values should truly be at the heart of our lives, and what we communicate to children about how they should live their lives.
Doesn’t happiness seem like a better goal than being good at capitalism? And I don’t mean “happiness” in a shallow or individualistic way, I mean it expansively, generously, a communal effort to re-organize society in such a way that everyone can live well--can, hopefully, be happy.
It’s a mistake for parents to prioritize productivity. And if they prized their children’s happiness instead, perhaps that could even be a little bit revolutionary.
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