Happy vs. high achieving: What ought to be our parenting objective?

Mihal Greener in Salon Books:

Pensive_girlHappiness was the last thing on my mind when the Netherlands welcomed me with a cocktail of jet lag and neck pain. The jet lag subsided, but my neck still hasn’t forgiven me for seven years of straining to make eye contact with the impossibly tall Dutch. As it turned out, it was hard to avoid reflecting on happiness in the Netherlands, especially when raising a family there. Dutch kids play without parents hovering, enjoy the fresh air while being transported around by bike and every Wednesday afternoon, when schools close early, parks are filled with Dutch dads hanging out with their kids on papadag — an unpaid, weekly “daddy day.” Combined with five weeks of paid annual leave and an expectation that families are home to eat dinner together, this seemed like bliss. Questions about the cost of this lifestyle only started a few years later when an expat father struck up a conversation at the local trampoline center. As we watched our children bounce, he readily shared his reasons for sending his children to an international school. At the top of his list was a belief that Dutch schools fail to instill ambition and don’t push students to achieve. The question of my young children’s ambition levels had, at that point, never crossed my mind. Yet his frustration with the Dutch system made me question if producing happy kids was at the expense of ambition and achievement. What do we actually mean when we say that we just want our children to be happy?

Can it be a coincidence that the countries with the happiest children are those where both social welfare and a desire for conformity are prevalent? If a more egalitarian society is what it takes to produce happy children, is it a trade-off we’re willing to make? Even Partanen admits that, “Many a Nordic citizen gazes at America with envy, wishing his or her uniqueness could be celebrated the way it would be in the United States.” Add to this the question of whether happy children grow up to become happy adults, and perhaps we should start to ask ourselves if the focus on happiness is the right measure for a life well lived.

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