Rethinking What We Say to Our Kids

I Just Want You to Be Happy: No, We Want Much, Much More for You

In the 1950’s, a group of psychologists began promulgating ideas related to the pursuit of happiness and flourishing. Psychology had long been focused on what could go wrong instead of what could go right.  As the psychologist Martin Seligman noted decades later in the first sentence of his book, Authentic Happiness, “For the last half century psychology has been consumed with a single topic only—mental illness.”

For millennium, varied traditions have spoken of this pursuit. The Israelites believed that happiness came through following the commands and rules put forth by Yahweh.  The Greeks sought contentment in logic and analysis.  Jesus and His message is the source of joy for Christians.  In Islam, happiness comes from a “contented heart” found in the remembrance and pleasure of God himself.  Many Westerners seek out hedonistic practices, believing that pleasure itself is the source of happiness.

Seeking happiness is as ubiquitous as water and soil, yet the methods for achieving it often seem varied and contrary. Any pursuit of the good life must then ask, “Just what happiness are we seeking?”  Because the term happiness has great latitude, any discussion must first define just what this word means.  Seligman proposes that there are three major “routes” to happiness:  pleasure and positive emotion (the pleasant life), engagement (the engaged life), and meaning (the meaningful life).  How we choose to seek out happiness may differ, but most people’s practices and pursuits lie in at least one of these domains.  Further research by Seligman and colleagues found that people who reported being most satisfied with their life were those who sought out experiences through all three routes, with a heavier emphasis towards the engaged and meaningful life.

As parents, child rearing brings many uncertainties. But we do hope our kids to be happy.  In concordance with Seligman, we hope that it comes through pleasurable, engaged, and meaningful pathways.  Yet if we become so primarily focused on making our kids happy, there is a good chance that they will not only lose out on “authentic happiness”, but on much more.

For starters, my wife and I want our kids to have self-control, not the kind that obsesses over tiny details in a way that removes joy, but an internal regulation needed to guide them through many difficult circumstances. It is the kind (see my November 2012 series) that I know as a psychologist can influence outcomes in almost every important aspect of their adult life. We want our kids to be kind, empathetic, and grateful, not just because it makes them more pleasant to be around, but also because the rule of reciprocity (i.e., “The way we treat others is often the way they will treat us”) will be in their favor.  Relationships provide great meaning and joy even in struggle, and I don’t want selfishness and bitterness to leave them alone.  We want our kids to be successful, not in the conventional “American dream sense”, but in a truer way.  We do not want them to be poor (unless they choose), but we do not desire wealth for them that will lead to greater misery.  We just want them to persevere, and find contentment in their callings, and make an impact wherever they go.  We want our kids to seek out beauty and truth in their purest forms, and not settle for a second rate product.  We want them to be healthy, not for vanity’s sake, but because the pursuit of health holds many opportunities yet unrevealed.  We want them to not be guided by fear or conceit, but acknowledge when they have done wrong, and find contentment when they have done right.  We want more for them than this.  But we begin here.

Although we can’t say for sure, I think we speak for most parents when we profess these desires for our kids. Sometimes our surface goals may appear different.  Still, our blood runs in the same direction.  It intrigues me that much of what we want for our kids resonates across peoples and cultures and lands of the world.  It is virtue.  Regardless of race, creed, practice, or experience, people consistently report that virtue remains virtue.  Six universal virtues exist. They are wisdom and knowledge, courage, humanity, justice, temperance, and transcendence. Within these six virtues are 24 character strengths, also endorsed across the world.  For example, courage is composed of authenticity, bravery, persistence, and zest while temperance is composed of forgiveness, modesty, and prudence.  Available to all, exclusive to none, these virtues and strengths run like a river through our world, and into another.

Again, we must ask. “Just what happiness are we seeking for us and our youth, and are we seeking it for now, later, and/or eternity?”  If we could find pleasure, engagement, and meaning through the pursuit of universal virtue, would this further guide us towards a particular pathway?  Sure, it would be hard work at times.  Yet it would make this pursuit of happiness much less mystifying.  It would not mean we would give up our blisses, as long as they didn’t contradict our virtues.  But in being just, we could feel pleasure in making the right decision, engage with people in a gratifying way, and find meaning that our actions were the better ways, now and later.  In being courageous, I could experience joy through challenging endeavors, meet others in their struggles, and do something that really matters for those I love.  Through virtue, maybe we all could find happiness—in mind, body, heart, and soul.  Maybe we could.  We can.  We have.

One more thing. Like three out of four Americans, I do think that heaven and hell exists. As my brother once matter-of-factly said, “If it didn’t, what would be the motivation for doing good?” So if heaven exists, and if our actions and our relationship with God dictate whether we and our kids will end up there, then I want one more thing for my children.  I want them to be holy.

It’s What’s On the Inside that Counts:  Actually, It is Being Whole That Matters

We have all said it. Or at least thought it at one time.  Maybe it was in response to a brand new pair of thick-rimmed glasses that suddenly adorned a face of someone we loved.  Maybe it was a statement of comfort to a person who was fifty pounds overweight, or whose face was covered in pimples.  Or maybe, it was just intended to make someone who the world judges as unattractive feel better about themselves.  Regardless, the statement or ones like it, usually come from a good place, with admirable intentions.  Especially as parents, we find ourselves desiring that we live in a world where people aren’t judged, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., by the color of their skin or the attractiveness of their body, but by the content of their character.  The problem is, we are unknowingly sending the wrong message when only the “inside counts”, and ignoring just where we are.

In 2007, forty-two times the number of people got Botox injections than in 1997. Breast augmentations increased by 4 times during the same period, much of this occurring in the younger population all the way to the teens.  In one particular study, four out of five plastic surgery patients reported that television shows influenced them to get the procedure done.  Skin cancer rates, closely associated with increasing tanning, jumped 20 percent in the past decade.  It is phenomenon that is spreading across people of various cultures, ages, and gender.  Almost 10 times the number of men got non-invasive cosmetic procedures in 2007 than 10 years earlier (Twenge & Campbell, 2010).  It is now even possible for pets to get cosmetic surgery, including liposuctions, facelifts, and believe it or not, Neuticles (false testicles).  Regardless of what you think of the current trends, one thing is for sure.  We have become obsessed with the way we look.

In recognizing this, the first mistake that we make in this area of discussion is to equate beauty with image, and attractiveness with lust & immodesty. In doing so, we are sending the message that beauty and attractiveness are automatically vain and evil, and not gifts and realities of our world.  Regarding the topic of beauty versus image, there are few things that we must consider in discussing this subject with anyone, especially our kids.  One, beauty in its pure form is one of the greatest gifts that the world has been given.  Whether it is the landscape of Yosemite, the brush strokes of Michelangelo, the harmony of Beethoven, or the attractiveness of a human being, beauty is something that is provided to us as a source of harmony and joy.  It is why every person in the world feels good when they experience it in its purest form.  Our brains are literally hard-wired to receive it.  As C.S. Lewis once said, “We do not want merely to see beauty… we want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”

But unfortunately, beauty has become misconstrued as vanity and self-promotion, as we often adopt a Hollywood view of what is frequently described as sexy or hot. As the world increasingly promotes beauty in a scandalous, sensationalistic way, something inside of us struggles to recognize that true beauty is actually harmony and wholeness rolled into one.  But when we profess that it is only “what’s on the inside that counts”, we suddenly suggest that outer beauty no longer has value in our world, unless in self-serving ways.

Second, it is important we see that beauty is often the by-product of what all of us can agree is important. That includes qualities, such as will, determination, commitment, and drive, among other things.  Whether it is an attempt to curb poor eating habits or limited activity, whether it results from repeated, persevering attempts to learn a piano piece, or even if it is great attention to detail in cleaning up a polluted outdoor area, beauty exists for a reason.  It provides us with a compelling built-in reward to do things in a better, and more convicted way.  If we remove beauty from the equation, or minimalize its importance, then we may be unknowingly removing one of the most important motivators that a person may have to improve their life.  Done for the right purposes, the pursuit of beauty is often synonymous with the pursuit of health.  Consider this.  What if we could eat anything we want and exercise sporadically (or not at all), and our outer appearance would remain in its natural form, even if internally we were on the fast track to diabetes, stroke, or a heart attack?  The way we look serves as a reminder.  Much of what is occurring on the outside is reflective of what is going on within.  And thankfully so, or it is safe to say that the average lifespan would start plummeting all over the world.

But there is more. Our world cultivates the idea that beauty can be owned, that we can buy expensive artwork, or a huge seaside plot, or even that another person is “ours”, such as my wife or kids.  Again, when beauty is perceived in this way, it becomes distorted as if it is a commodity that can be bought or sold, not admired and awed.  Beauty is not something we can have.  It is an experience we share, one in which can inspire us to go far beyond our self-gratifying persona, into a transcendent world of much deeper meaning and more joyful days.  When we, and our youth, come to see beauty in this way, it no longer evokes selfish desires of expectation and right, but instead gracious and praiseful exclamations that we are privileged to perceive it at all.  In my own life, I am blessed to have come to know this in many ways, including in my home and far away from where humanity resides.

In returning to the original statement, though, our well-meaning attempts to reinforce character over appearance belie the fact that any single quality is part of a whole person. When the search for beauty becomes an exercise in vanity, it loses being beauty at all;  but when it becomes a search for harmony, health, wholeness, and holiness, beauty simply reflects a natural law that is at play.  For many, it may require just as much effort to exercise 5 times a week as it does to be nice to another human being.  It might require just as much resolve to refrain from eating sweets as it does to volunteer at a local food pantry.  Each can be done with motives of vanity and obligation, and/or service and self-improvement.  Although one endeavor might seem less selfish than the other, we must remember that we can only give what we have; that what we give cannot be measured in simple terms of “inside or out”, but the gift of our whole selves more fully realized.  There is no greater gift on this earth.

As we seek to teach the true language of beauty, there are two primary pathways that end up in a very similar place. One is an earthly approach, and much of what I described hopefully resonates with just why beauty is critical regardless where a person finds themselves.  But the other is a divine perspective, the one in which we were “all created in the image and likeness of God.”  Inherent in this statement is the idea that our entire being is of His image—not just the inside—but our complete being.  As St. Irenaeus once said, “”The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God.”  I think it is safe to say that whether it comes to matters of emotionality, sociality, physicality, or spirituality, His image of us retains the highest ideals.  These may or may not be the same as ours.  But to suggest that God is fine with us being slothful and gluttonous as long as we are caring and compassionate simply does not coalesce with the willful effort needed to realize His image for our whole self.  In the end, it also harms us and others in the process.

If we come to fully realize all of this, then it seems that we would come to know that beauty is not just in the eye of beholder, but also through the eyes of the one who is beheld. Every once in a while, our family gets a chance to spend some time with Mary, a 6-year-old girl with Down Syndrome adopted by our long-time friends.  She is a beautiful girl, whose beaming face and bright eyes just shine back at you in such a spirited, engaging way.  She is quite a sight, and I pray that as she gets older, she finds the same happiness, harmony, and health that we all desire.  But no doubt she emanates beauty to all those privileged to know her, just as her older counterparts who share the same condition most certainly do.

So, it is time to recognize where our world is today, and be honest with ourselves and youth about just what beauty is, and what it is not. It seems well overdue that we emphasize beauty in its infinite forms, and recognize what promises it provides, and how important it is to preserve.  Because if we do not, and just continue to harp that it is “what’s on the inside that counts,” I worry that our outer world will only become uglier, and more distorted and superficial, and move further away from the truly beautiful place that it is and the beautiful people we are.

* *  *  *  *

Twenge, J., & Campbell, W.K. (2010). The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement.  Atria Books – Simon & Schuster.

Always Believe in Yourself No Matter What Anyone Says:  On Second Thought, Know When to Heed Advice and When to Go Alone

The year was 2003. American Idol had just soared to the top of the television charts in just its second season.  For eight consecutive years to follow, it would rank number one as complete unknowns suddenly found themselves as household names.  By season ten, almost 750 million people would call in to vote on their favorite performer.  As Idol producers travelled to different cities looking for new talent, young people would camp out for days at a time just for a shot at Hollywood and superstardom.  Soon after, locales and organizations began holding their own version of Idol competitions as everyone seemed to yearn for a chance to show off their hidden talent.  Yet beneath all the soulful, harmonious sounds, another storyline soon broke through of a very different nature and captured audiences in its own way.  They were the auditions that never should have happened.  Although some of the singers were undoubtedly driven by an opportunity for a few moments of fame (or infamy), what made many of the train wreck tryouts so compelling was the singer truly thought he or she had brilliance yet unrealized; even worse, when confronted with the obvious reality, the singer remained defiant to a truth that many others, including the judges, had tried to pass along.

As young kids, most of us are taught the importance of believing in ourselves no matter what…We hear this message conveyed many ways, whether by the people we know well, quotes that have been passed along, or images and messages conveyed on a variety of screens.  We have heard repeatedly about the author whose book was rejected twenty times before selling millions of copies or the inventor who peddled for years despite mockery, only to create something that changed the planet for good.  It is understandable.  We all want our kids to excel.  And none of us want our kids to lack in confidence, or self-esteem, even as questions increasingly loom about whether the pursuit of self-esteem may be a false idol.

Yet beneath the message of self-reliance lies some bigger issues. One is the fact that no matter how brilliant or talented or capable a person is, they rely on feedback and modeling from an early age to help mold them into who they will become.  It suggests that instead of focusing on believing in yourself, our attention as parents would be better served in helping youth discern the difference between important, and potentially formative, criticism and advice, versus messages of degradation, derision, and cruelty.

Although some may believe this is an easy judgment to make, I would suggest that as parents and professionals, our judgment is often clouded by our own personal experiences. For one, many people today regard authority as synonymous with abuse, or at least authoritarianism, instead of authoritativeness (see August 2013 article entitled “When to Control–When to Let Go”).  Whether it is because of early family dysfunction or perceived punitive experiences by a teacher, caregiver, or professional, many see authority figures as people whose primary goal is to inhibit and restrain the natural progression of an individual.  Therefore, messages are often passed along that authority should be subverted, ignored, or challenged, and that each person should follow his or her own heart at all costs.  Unfortunately, when this message is repeatedly internalized, a person often grows up alienating others, even those that that truly have his or her best interests at heart.

Beyond the perception of authority, all of us struggle to a varied degree to distinguish between constructive criticism versus destructive criticism. Constructive criticism not only focuses on particular aspects of behavior or patterns that can be improved, but it also provides ways in which this can occur.  Ideally, this is presented in the context of a loving situation, but as personalities and circumstances differ, it may not always carry a sweet, loving tone.  Yet if it is truly constructive, it does not demean the individual in worthless fashion, but seeks to identify areas of weakness or deficiency that can be improved, not those (i.e., height, facial features, or ethnicity) than cannot be.  In contrast, destructive criticism is a direct attack at the worth or competence of an individual, with no purpose of providing support or advice for how a fault can be bettered.  It often occurs in situations of power, manipulation, or bitterness, and seeks as its ultimate goal to lower an individual, not provide means of ascension through self-improvement.  Teaching the difference between the two is vital for our kids.

Still, any education on this topic must come with instruction on self-control, emotional regulation, and self-reflection. We have all experienced the pangs of getting negative feedback, whether it was how we looked in a picture or spoke in a public forum or performed on a larger stage.  Anyone who says it doesn’t hurt (at least a little) has either achieved the rare feat of self-actualization or has become disconnected from the feedback as a whole.  We all want to believe that what we are doing is worthwhile and good.  Yet, it is at this moment of discomfort that we really must teach our kids the art of self-reflection that requires a few basic steps.

The first is basic emotional awareness and regulation. Although anger (and the thoughts that accompany it) might seem like our first reaction, it is almost always a secondary response that is preceded by another feeling, whether that is guilt, disappointment, anxiety, or confusion.  If we don’t recognize our first reaction and simply follow the furious route, then there is a good chance that we will miss an initial opportunity for self-reflection that could lead to further growth, not a vengeful or avoidant response.  If we are too upset from the beginning to even hear what is being said, there is little chance that the words will leave a helpful impression at all.

The second issue is that we must learn to recognize that sometimes good advice comes from people we don’t know well, or just don’t like. We might be more willing to get feedback from someone that we trust and admire.  But when it comes from someone who bothers or even infuriates us, our first inclination is just to dismiss what they say because we regard them as a pest or a jerk.  As noted earlier, we should be cautious about a person’s intent.  But by automatically disregarding criticism because of our dislike of an individual, we may be potentially missing opportunities to learn about ourselves in ways that our close friends and family are reluctant to divulge for fear of creating a rift.

If we can learn (and teach our kids) to regulate our emotions and not disregard the message for the messenger, then we reach a final step. It is to truly take some time to consider the message that is being sent, and reflect deeply on whether patterns or circumstances in our lives may provide some evidence that the message is true.  Years ago, as I was winding up my formal training, I was fortunate to have a supervisor who really challenged me, although I did not feel fortunate then.  At a time when most of the feedback was positive and I was being given wide latitude to practice, she pushed me to use different means of really assessing whether I was performing well.  At one point, when she asked me to tape a couple of sessions for further review, I resisted her request, and was bothered that she was asking me to do this at this juncture.  What I later realized was that I was mistaking frustration for anxiety, specifically performance anxiety, something that had affected me at other times.  I believed in myself, or so I thought.  Only later in the year, and in years to follow, did I come to appreciate the opportunity she was trying to give me in furthering my personal and professional development.  She gave me the chance to believe I still had much to learn.  Her lesson remains with me today and hopefully always, especially now that I have assumed the role of a supervisor, and a parent.

So when it comes to teaching our kids to believe in themselves, it appears the message should be altered somewhat. I want my kids to believe that through effort, persistence, and self-reflection, positive results can occur and satisfaction will result.  But I also want them to understand that truly no one does it alone, and those that attempt to do so often find themselves repeatedly isolated, confused, and without a place to turn when they need help the most.  I want them to know that initial discomfort can lead to much better things, if they are willing to discern the message that was sent.  Ultimately, it seems that success is largely determined by an acute awareness that comes in knowing when to ask for help, when to forge ahead, and when to stop, reflect, and open oneself to an alternate course newly realized when me and we and they align.

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