Choosing Happiness, Part III

Raising Happy Children

If happiness is simply a choice, then it is a disservice for parents to “make” their children happy by continually manipulating environmental factors.

Now, the survival of infants certainly requires constant manipulation of their environment by caregivers, so it is natural for parents to develop a habit of doing so. Indeed, I believe we are genetically predisposed to manipulate the environment to appease children. However,  if children are not weaned off this approach, they develop an incorrect belief that happiness comes from a properly-crafted environment. Perhaps the pathological extreme of this belief is the belief that happiness can come from addictive drugs.

It seems only logical that children who are not weaned off this approach would continue to expect that some one who loves them will always manipulate the environment to make it proper. And as a child becomes an adult, this environmental requirement becomes a tall order for others who love him or her (spouse or children). If the proper environment is anachronistic, it may be difficult or impossible to create. In this case, this approach condemns a growing child to unhappiness.

As infants learn to distinguish themselves from the world around them, so they must be helped to distinguish their happiness from their environmental conditions.

Children should be taught to find happiness by choosing it in any circumstance. This must be done by example. If parents express unhappiness unless and until they succeed in creating the “proper” environment, then the child’s association between happiness and the environment will be strengthened. If parents choose happiness independently of the environment, then the association will be weakened.

Make no mistake: this doesn’t mean we should passively accept everything in the environment. It just means we shouldn’t let the environment determine our emotional state.

I have heard it suggested that guilt is a learned emotion. Apparently, children naturally choose happiness and only learn to expect it from the environment by observing their parents. Perhaps guilt is the unhappiness we choose after failing to create a “proper” environment. As parents, we sometimes express negative emotion (anger, frustration, sadness, fear) when our children create an improper (dirty, cluttered, dangerous) environment. Children frequently remain obliviously happy after creating such environments, and parents sometimes react to this with outrage. A happy reaction to an “improper” environment seems “wrong” to them. Unfortunately, this conditions children to react with similar negative emotion when they create or encounter an improper environment. This conditioning is the source of guilt.

In the next part, I’ll talk about sympathy.

Tags: Philosophy

Created at: 17 May 2008 12:05 AM