What We're Missing By Raising Happy Kids Parenting is a tough job, and everyone makes mistakes. Still, commentator and Harvard psychologist Richard Weissbourd says that today's parents are making one huge mistake: focusing on raising their kids to be happy. Everyone wants their children to be happy, he says, but will that make them good people?
NPR logo What We're Missing By Raising Happy Kids

What We're Missing By Raising Happy Kids

Are we missing out on teaching kids to be moral? iStockphoto.com hide caption

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Are we missing out on teaching kids to be moral?

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Richard Weissbourd is a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His newest book is The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children's Moral and Emotional Development. Tom Kates/Courtesy of Harvard Graduate School of Education hide caption

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Tom Kates/Courtesy of Harvard Graduate School of Education

Every generation of parents has a child-raising mission. My research suggests that this generation's mission is happiness. Many parents campaign fiercely for their kids to feel good and feel good about themselves.

But will that make them good people?

Adults in previous generations didn't think so. Moral character came from making sacrifices, facing challenges and dealing with adversity — ideas rooted in the Bible. What I've found in my research is that these days, many parents and children are not only intensely focused on happiness and self-esteem, they also believe that these positive feelings will lead to "doing good." As one teen put it: "If I'm in a good mood, then I'll care more about others." It's the airplane oxygen mask philosophy: Fill yourself up first, and then help your neighbor.

That works on airplanes, but on the ground the situation is far more complex. Positive moods can just as easily breed arrogance and destructiveness as altruism. Sports fans don't riot when their team loses the championship game; they riot when their team wins. Studies show that gang leaders, delinquents, violent criminals and bullies often have high self-esteem. So do high school athletes who abuse their girlfriends and greedy corporate executives who cheat their clients. Self-esteem can come from feeling powerful, and people can feel very powerful degrading and controlling others.

When it comes to developing our children's morality, there are no shortcuts or bargains. If we want our children to be caring and responsible, we need to intentionally cultivate in them these qualities. We can't let ourselves off the hook. To start, rather than telling our children that "the most important thing is that you're happy," we can tell them, "The most important thing is that you're kind."

We can also overcome our modern allergy to children experiencing pain of any kind. That means pushing children to think about others, even if it causes distress.

Too many of us let our kids simply write off peers they find annoying, or be cold to our friends, or dominate conversations with other kids or adults. Too many of us tell children to be nice to others because then others will be nice to them, or to pass the ball because then they'll get the ball back. But that still makes happiness the goal.

We should tell children to take responsibility for others because it's vital to our collective well-being — and because other people are important. We should tell them to do what's right because it's right. That won't always make them happy, but that's how we can be moral parents, and that's how we can raise moral children.