“I just want my kids to be happy” is one of the biggest parenting pitfalls we could slip into. Lots of things make kids happy. No rules and late nights watching Disney Junior would make them happy. A mountain of Skittles dropped into a tub of caramel popcorn would make them happy. Setting them loose in a toy shop with sticky fingers and a hammer would make them happy. And I’m not about to do any of that shit.
My ultimate objective as a parent is not to make my kids happy — it’s to see them fulfilled. Happiness will be the occasional side effect. Happiness is a fickle bastard, and constant happiness is just as numbing as none at all.
When we focus so intently on creating happy kids, we are implicitly teaching them that any time they’re not happy, life is bad. When they’re sad, we offer them ice cream sundaes to cheer them up. When they’re bored, we buy them toys to distract them. When they’re loud, we plop them in front of the TV to keep them entertained. What we’re teaching them is that a lack of happiness can be fixed with stuff that comes from the outside, but no one has ever found happiness there.
My job as a parent is not to make them happy — it’s to keep them healthy and safe. And if I get to want something for them, it’s not going to be happiness.
What I want for my kids is to experience love in its waxing and waning phases.
I want them to overcome challenges with intelligence and grace.
I want them to adventure through their hearts and minds, uncovering more exquisite treasure within themselves at every turn.
I want them to live in lifelong curiosity, to hunger for knowledge, and to thirst for experience.
I want them to be rooted in empathy and compassion for the world around them.
I want them to want to make a palpable difference to the lives they cross.
I want them to believe in who they are and the power of their tiniest contributions.
I want them to be confident.
I want them to meet fear often and to find courage on occasion because that means they’re working outside constant comfort and security.
I want them to explode with ideas and creativity, to explore, and to experiment with whatever they can get their hands and minds on.
I want them to take risks, to fall, to fail, and to learn what it is to stand up again with scrapes on their knees and scars on their hearts. I want them to believe in the healing power of “again” and “next time.”
I want my kids to be secure enough in themselves to go hunting when they’re hungry, and to be big enough to share the catch when they make it.
I want all these things for my kids, and most of them don’t come with the irrationality and flightiness of happiness. These things require effort, time, and commitment from me as a parent.
They require me to continue to educate myself about, first and foremost, myself. They require me to be the best and most authentic version of myself every day, every minute, every “now” — when they’re around and when they’re not.
They require me to read and learn about education, nutrition, psychology, children, brains, candy making, costume jewelry, dinosaur species, and whatever matters at that moment.
They require me to explore my own fears and limitations and breaks and beliefs.
They require me to be open and to hold space for them to be themselves. They require me to be understanding of their differences and their quirks.
They require me to problem-solve on the spot when they come running to me in tears.
They require me to step back when they have their own battles to fight and when they have their own wounds to heal, and they require me to know when to fix and when to hold.
They require me to have endless compassion, to rain love and understanding and acceptance on them whenever I have the energy left over, and especially when I don’t.
They require me to have courage and faith when they are dealing with something I have never come across and don’t know what to do.
They require me to say “I don’t know. Let’s look it up.” And sometimes, they require me to simply not know.
They require me to stare in the mirror for a good long time. They require me to admit my own faults, to laugh out loud as often as possible, and also to cry out loud when crying is what’s needed.
They require me to ask for help, forgiveness, and support and to live with as little guilt as I can possibly survive with.
Parenting is one of the hardest things I have ever tried to do. It is also one of the most soul-wrenching, heart-scoring, mind-bending, love-filling, confidence-scorching, self-esteem-building roles a human could ever play. But it is work — a lot of work — because I want to be the kind of parent that my kids will want to be like.
I want to be the kind of parent my kids look up to when they need a parent to look up to and the kind of parent they talk to when they need a friend to listen.
I want to be the kind of parent who knows deep in the depths of her secret soul that she gave what knowledge and wisdom and experience she had, went in pursuit of what she didn’t, and lived in peace with what was left in between.
Just wanting our kids to be happy is easy. Teaching them how to design lives brimming with meaning, connection, and value is a monumental challenge. We’re still learning how to get there ourselves.
This post originally appeared on Medium.