I Wanted My Son to Be Happy But on MY Terms

Somewhere near the end of middle school our son, the youngest of three children, let my husband and me know a few things. He was straightforward and matter-of-fact when he told us that he would not be joining a sports team, and did not have a desire to play in the school band or join Leadership.

Also, he let us know, he would not be aiming for or going to an elite college.

Parents cannot define "happy" for their teens.

In a family where academia is almost a religion, this was a big moment. It may have been his natural maverick temperament that allowed him to vocalize his position so clearly and confidently.  Or, it may have been his status as third child, having watched up close the years of sacrifice and stress it took for his older sisters to get into prestigious universities. Either way, he let us know how he felt, loud and clear.

The first thought I had was, Okay, but in that case what are you going to do with your time?  And, where will you go to college?

The point is that my first thoughts were not truly about him.  They were about me, the parent, about suddenly needing a new plan and no longer being able to rely on the modern formula, that magic parental algebra that supposedly guarantees children will slowly but surely, by virtue of focus and achievement in high school and a high-end college education, climb their way into society with opportunity, job security, and resulting happiness.

Happiness. That’s the word, isn’t it?  It’s what we want for our children. We want happiness for them even more than we ever wanted it for ourselves.  So, all the planning and supporting and goal-setting, all the plugging our kids into the various recipes for success, it is all coming from such a good place.  How could it not be working?

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It isn’t working. New studies and publications appear on a daily basis, cautionary tales such as the New York Times article about teen anxiety citing 62% rate amongst college students in 2016.

What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen, by Kate Fagan, is a look at the life of Madison Halleran, a University of Pennsylvania scholar-athlete who looked perfect on the outside but struggled privately and took her own life.  Julie Lythcott Hains’ How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success is a powerful case against any form of over-parenting. What these writers are all telling us is that our best efforts and big plans are not guaranteeing happiness for our children and may be harming them.

This is not about blaming ourselves.  It is about evolving, adopting a new paradigm which, to many, including myself, may feel counter-intuitive.  In the case of my son, I have learned, slowly and sometimes painfully, to put him – the real him – first before any specific notions about who he should be.

I can look back and deconstruct my mindset and behaviors, starting with his 8th grade announcement about what he would and would not be doing in high school. Rather than worrying about how I was going to keep him “moving forward,” I should have wondered what he was telling us about himself.  I should have asked myself, What is he truly interested in? What will motivate and fulfill him?  Who is he and what does he value?

The concern lodged deep in my subconscious was that he might become aimless over the course of high school, might not ever learn to set goals and work hard. My approach as he entered freshman year was something along the lines of, Alright, so it’s Plan B, but we’ll still try to keep doors open because you never know… During his freshman year I followed his academics online, checked in with him every day about his assignments and test results, offered to pay for tutors or do whatever it took for him to bring his grades up.

And we fought.  Constantly.

The more I micro-managed and tried to get him to keep his grades where I thought they should be, the more he forgot to turn in homework, did the minimum on assignments and never seemed to study for tests.  It took a year of daily arguments and peaking household anxiety for me to acknowledge that things weren’t going well, that our relationship and family life were suffering.

Then, at the end of his freshman year I overheard a conversation he had with friends at our kitchen table.  They were all in Film and Video class together, and the friends were saying they weren’t going to take the class anymore because the teacher never gave A’s and it would hurt their GPAs.  My son said he didn’t care about his grade, he was going to stay in the class because he felt like he was learning a lot about film and video.

That’s when it finally hit me: my son truly did not care about his GPA.  And, he truly did want to learn.  As I worked to steer his focus toward a long-term disassociated goal, he tried to engage in something he could dive into and master.  As I focused on checking the boxes, he focused what interested him. No wonder he was angry with me.

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This was the beginning of me backing off and seeing who he truly is.  No, he is not an academic in the sense that he doesn’t love school and doesn’t particularly love studying.  But he is an intellectual in the sense that he loves to wrap his brain around certain subjects and he is genuinely interested in people and our planet.  He is a doer and an explorer. He is funny and kind and gets along well with people of all ages.  He knows how to make himself happy and is someone who, I see clearly now, would be extremely unhappy if forced into a different mold.

It hasn’t been easy for me to let him be. A junior now, he has chores and a minimum GPA to earn car privileges. He may or may not go straight to a four-year college. His path may be long and winding. But the key is that he is a thriving, happy kid.

Every single one of the authors writing about the mental health crisis facing teens today is telling us a different version of the same thing: the prestige, the degree, the amazing opportunities…none of it matters one iota if our child is not thriving.

They are all sending a strong message that at this point we have to take a radically different approach and proactively intervene on behalf of our children, protect them from the ambient air of stress and the culture of anxiety they are growing up in.  We need to create space for them to figure out who they are, beyond a list of achievements, and what they love, beyond our approval. We need to acknowledge the successes they value, and also allow for some degree of aimlessness and failure.

And then we need to love them for who they are.

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Kirsten Jones Neff is a writer based in Northern California where she and her husband raised their three children, ages 16-21.  She is a freelance magazine writer with a particular interest in parenting and mental health, food and farming, the environment and the arts.
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