How to Give Our Kids Happiness
Updated: May 25, 2019
Friday afternoon, while doing some last-minute erev Shabbos shopping in a local grocery store, I met an old friend of mine—we’ll call him Ben. We started talking and catching up on old news. Schmoozing as we shopped, we soon reached the candy aisle, where he picked up one of those REALLY large lollypops (one of those that I always dreamed of having as a kid, but my mother wouldn’t let; remember those?) and very seriously asked me, “Do you think giving one of these to each of my kids is too large a Shabbos treat?”
I hope that we can understand that yes—it’s too large for a regular Shabbos treat.
But I don’t blame Ben. I get it.
I don’t blame him, because we all so desperately want our kids to be happy. The problem though, is that we can often confuse happiness with excitement, which has terribly dangerous repercussions.
Many people go through their entire life making this mistake—thinking that happiness equals excitement. People chase after expensive cars and fancy houses, and they pursue all sorts of negative behaviors just to reach this high. Sadly, and because they know nothing else, they refuse to let go of this chase. They’ll continuously indulge in whatever brings on that high and excitement. It doesn’t last, though, so these people always need more and more. It’s never-ending and they’re never happy.
What we are actually chasing isn’t happiness. Instead, we’re pursuing excitement. In reality, the whole idea of chasing happiness is faulty, because happiness isn’t achieved by acquiring all the things we fancy. Instead, happiness is something that arrives when specific criteria are met.
Excitement, though, can be pursued and can be attained, and therein lies our mistake. Achieving excitement gives us a high and deludes us into thinking we are happy. Confused, we continue down this road, living a life of highs and lows devoid of true happiness.
That’s not what we want for our children.
We want our kids to be happy and there is a way to make that happen. Study after study shows the same idea. Happiness comes when we feel accomplished. When we feel that what we’re doing matters—that what I’m doing makes a difference.
In one such study, researchers gave people in elder care more autonomy. Their caregivers started giving them choices about their basic needs. They would ask them simple questions, like whether they wanted the heat on or off or whether they wanted the AC on. They were given choices about where they wanted to see visitors and how to set up their furniture. Simple decisions about daily life. The results were astounding. The levels of happiness went through the roof. Testing showed a spike of 93 percent. (And it wasn’t just happiness levels; the people who were given these choices also lived longer lives.)
We all need to feel accomplished—to feel that we are making a difference. Child or adult, it doesn’t matter. It’s a basic need.
We want our children to be happy, and to accomplish this, we will often buy them gifts or treats. We will send them to amusement parks and pay exorbitant prices for outings, all because it makes them feel good. We want to see them smiling, but it’s not the large lollypop or trip to the amusement park that will give them happiness. To get our children to be happy, we must teach them to feel success in their day-to-day life, to feel accomplished, to feel that what they’re doing matters. When we give over this feeling, we give them the gift of happiness.
And there’s another goal as well. The life outside glistens. It glitters and shines. In today’s day and age, there is no end to what’s available and that sort of excitement is so easily attained, but often not in ways that we want. Not in healthy ways. We want our children to stay strong and not fall for the emptiness outside. What protects our children, what gets our children to focus on what matters, is feeling accomplished in what they’re doing, feeling pride in what they’re doing, and feeling success in what they’re doing. They need not run after negative behaviors, because they feel positivity and happiness in their actions and in their Yiddishkeit. When we give our kids this gift, we set them up for a life of happiness and a life of success and growth.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had children and teens in my office who had been given everything imaginable. From electronic gadgets to trips around the world, nothing had been held back. All this was done in a bid to make them feel good and keep them connected to Torah and Yiddishkeit. We don’t want them to G-d forbid fall through the cracks. But they’re still struggling. Not only does it not help, it’s often counterproductive. What it often does is feed a rush for more highs, and instead of a life of happiness, it creates a life of dependence on such highs.
The answer to our children’s struggles isn’t to give them more and more, or to dumb down Yiddishkeit. The answer is to make them feel that they and their actions matter. To make them feel that their Torah and their avodah makes a difference.
There’s probably nothing more dangerous for our youth than failure. Facing a life of daily failure at home and in school destroys all feelings of accomplishment. This environment eats away at everything because there’s nothing that we are as starved for as the feeling of accomplishment.