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How to Really Know if Your Child is Happy

I’m going to cry foul on a recent Cafemom article about how to know whether your child is happy.  I was a fairly happy child, so I’m going to use myself as an example.

I didn’t have good friends.  Or, I didn’t when I was in elementary school.  I spent many a recess by myself, and I usually brought a book outside with me so I could look engaged instead of staring at the other kids with longing.  Did I have kids at my birthday party?  Sure.  Did I have some playdates?  Sure.  But I would never describe myself as having good friends.  Until middle school, I didn’t have dependable, strong, lasting friendships.

And I would still describe myself as happy.  Maybe not at school, which was a pretty stressful space that I had to spend about 7 hours of my day, but definitely at home.  Definitely a happy kid, overall.

I didn’t know how to look on the bright side.  Have you met me?  I have been a pessimist from Day 1.  I have never spent a moment thinking how great it is that my block tower has been knocked down so I can build something new.  Since birth, I have been much more likely to curl up in a small ball and sob inconsolably when shit happens.  So no, I can’t say that I have spent a single second of my life looking at the bright side of things.  But I would still describe myself as a happy kid.

Was I grateful?  Of course I wasn’t grateful.  Kids are rarely truly grateful because they have no concept of the enormity of other people’s actions.  The Wolvog thanks me for every tiny thing including making pancakes in normal circles.  Do I think he really understands what saying “thank you” means?  No — he says it because it’s polite and he’s trying to butter me up so I will let him stay up later.

Until you become an adult, you have no clue how hard it is to be an adult.  Therefore, your gratitude is tempered by the fact that it comes from a place of not understanding the sacrifice or extension that the other person made on your behalf.  Still, look at me: happy kid.

Okay, I was pretty comfortable expressing my emotions.  Um… that one I can’t really argue about.

Lastly, plenty of time for play.  That’s a hard one because I was never the type of kid who did well with unstructured time.  I didn’t like summer, for instance, unless summer had a rigid schedule.  I am still terrible with the concept of unstructured time.  I even write down to-do lists for having fun during free time.

A lot of kids are the same way.  They derive joy from knowing their schedule is filled and feel uneasy when the day is amorphous.  Was I overscheduled?  I don’t think so, but I certainly had a lot of activities after school including Hebrew school, art classes, and dance lessons.  Plus my version of “play” was mostly reading books OR writing down all the facts I could find in the World Book Encyclopedia on a given topic.  Usually human hearts or exotic fish.  I was equally in love with reading about ventricles and viperfish.  So, yes, happy, even with a lack of unstructured play time since I structured all my unstructured time.

I don’t know.  I can’t help but feel that it may be more useful to spend time with the kid and gauge his or her mood rather than trying to guess at it with an article.  Plus, I don’t think that one-size-fits-all when it comes to happy people.  I’m proof that you can be happy off the beaten happiness track.


1 nicoleandmaggie { 01.27.16 at 10:17 am }

Happiness isn’t everything. There are a lot of things that cause short-term angst, but lead to greater resilience and/or better opportunities later.

Of course, I’m fairly certain that a lot of my adult happiness derives from it not being, you know, middle school. Not that I would ever wish middle school on my own kids. Still, as my mom would say, [anything that sucks] is character building.

2 a { 01.27.16 at 10:38 am }

You know how we foster empathy around our house? When my daughter complains about her classmates, we discuss how they’re different from her and why she maybe shouldn’t be so critical. She doesn’t have any close friends – she’s too impatient with their topics of discussion and how they choose to spend their time and what their interests are (i.e. not reading and not being obsessed with dogs and not crafts). It’s probably because she’s the only child of two anti-social people who, unfortunately, inherited the social butterfly gene from her grandmother – she knows everyone, but is close to none. Is she a happy kid? Mostly, but, as noted, she is also critical of others. Since she’s open about it to me, we discuss and try to mediate her critical nature. But she laughs every day and finds many things to delight over…and her life is without struggle (for the most part). If she’s not happy, it’s going to be because she’s not a happy kind of person. (I’m pretty sure she’s generally happy, though.)

Happiness is just one part of the human experience, and I wish people would stop stressing it as a goal for a permanent state of being. If your kid is UNhappy, that might be something to try and alleviate. Someone should write an article to determine whether your kid is unhappy instead.

3 knottedfingers { 01.27.16 at 10:44 am }

That article misses so many variables. My kids have friends but no good friends. We homeschool and they are home a lot. They express their emotions in healthy ways and are genuinely happy kids.

However my oldest child also suffers anxiety, this doesn’t mean she’s unhappy. She just can’t really look at the bright side.

My kids get a lot of free play time. But we do have stuff. Music lessons, ASL classes, ect

4 nonsequiturchica { 01.27.16 at 12:01 pm }

Middle school is hard on the happiest kid! I had friends in middle school but I didn’t have REALLY good friends until high school. Part of the problem was that there were only 50 kids in my class and therefore only a small number of people to “click” with. But I would still say that I was a happy kid.

5 Ana { 01.27.16 at 1:33 pm }

meh, what a stupid & simplistic article. I was more like you, but also not comfortable expressing my emotions until I was older. I consider my childhood happy. Not a fan of unstructured time, either. I couldn’t wait for school to start after summers & I loved scheduling myself into activities and clubs and what not after school. The only thing I really did when I was at home was read, watch TV, play video games…and having unlimited time to do that all day long probably wasn’t the best for me! I did have friends most of my childhood, though there were a few years where I remember not having any friends at all and reading a LOT (and playing video games with my sister).
This article misses out completely on the basic fact that different people need different things to be happy. And that’s beside the fact that “happiness” is only one part of what I want for my children.

6 illustr8d { 01.27.16 at 3:30 pm }

I once heard (probably from a romcom movie) that the French don’t ask if someone had lived a happy life after they died, they asked if the person had passion.

And frankly, from everything you’re telling me, you sound like a kid who was a writer way back then. And let’s face it, we have to spend enormous chunks of time alone or no writing happens. It’s the nature of the thing.

7 Cristy { 01.27.16 at 5:00 pm }

Though I think the intention of this article is a good one, I find myself shaking my head over this idea of “happy.” There’s been a LOT of focus on the millienials and their general state of unhappiness. How helicopter parenting has resulted in a generation that is struggling a lot emotionally. But this article over-simplifies things.

Yes, kids need unstructured playtime combined with an environment that is structured for routine. They also need to learn how to develop relationships and interact with people. But counting friends as a measure of happiness? Pushing a rigid schedule at all costs? It’s far more complex than that.

8 Mali { 01.27.16 at 6:38 pm }

I love Cristy’s comment.

Whilst it would probably be good if any child can do and feel all of the things on the list, I agree with you that if you don’t have those things in your life/personality, that you will by definition be unhappy. I was a happy kid. I had scheduled time but also unscheduled time, and had friends (although didn’t always feel 100% safe with them). But I certainly didn’t always feel grateful – my mother would regularly make me go read the Pollyanna books if I was sounding too negative! That follows through to the issue of emotions. They weren’t something we grew up expressing. Showing them, especially sadness or anger, but also pride, was a sign of weakness and ill-discipline. Stiff upper lip and all that. But despite this, I was a happy kid! So yes, it is much more complex than a simple list.

9 Lori Lavender Luz { 01.27.16 at 7:07 pm }

I like your article better.

Laughing, because me, too: “I even write down to-do lists for having fun during free time.”

10 chickenpig { 01.28.16 at 9:08 am }

I was a very happy kid most of the time, and I don’t think I was supposed to be. I do remember being very grateful for my mom. We knew from a very young age that it was just her keeping us from tipping over the line from being very poor to being homeless and hungry. I remember when I was about 8 taking the money that our father (actually my grandmother, but whatever) had sent us to the jeweler downtown and buying a watch for my mom, and the look on her face when she opened it. Because of her I know what really makes kids happy….time and love. I never sweat whether or not my kids have enough stuff, or the right camp, or enough friends. Time and love 🙂

11 Raven { 01.28.16 at 5:27 pm }

Interesting read. I had many good friends, I had all my time for play, I always looked on the bright side and I was always grateful for things. Yet I was far from happy because while I had all of these things, my home life was awful. So I’m not sure I’d put much weight in those things!

12 Conceptionally Challenged { 02.15.16 at 7:19 am }

“Until you become an adult, you have no clue how hard it is to be an adult. ”
I love this. And your last paragraph. (Didn’t go back to the original article so I can’t really join that discussion 😉

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