My baby shower for my first baby, who is now 14 years old, was a mixed-gender affair. All our friends came, so my husband at the time was there too. After I’d finished opening gifts, my friend Tomás asked my then-husband and me the following question: What do you hope your baby will be when he grows up?
Fairly quickly, my ex husband said, “engineer.” (This makes sense, since my ex comes from a family of engineers.) It took me a minute to come up with an answer though. I knew I was having a boy, and I was all of 26 years old with lots of maturing left to do, so the first answers that came to me were stereotypical “boy” professions.
Wouldn’t it be incredible for my son to be a heart surgeon, or maybe even an oncologist? He’d save lives! I’d be so proud! Maybe he’d be an attorney or a financial advisor and make tons of money. Or maybe he’d be a teacher or a park ranger or some other fulfilling job that wouldn’t make so much money but would still make my son feel like he was doing good in the world. Maybe a famous musician? Eh, maybe not. I’d be worried about him getting into drugs. But maybe some other kind of artist. It would all depend on his personality, which we didn’t know yet.
As I sat and considered my friend’s question about my unborn son, as I scrolled through all the professions I could think of, I became more and more paralyzed and unable to answer. What did I want for my son?
The future grownup son I pictured in my head was a kind of nebulous, smoky figure, someone far, far in the distant future who hadn’t quite taken shape yet. Without knowing his personality, without knowing his hopes and dreams or even what he would eventually be good at, I couldn’t imagine picking a direction for him, even if it was only in fun for a lighthearted baby shower question. The truth was, I didn’t care what my son became when he grew up. I just wanted him to be happy.
And there was my answer. Happy.
I told my friend. My then-husband￼￼￼￼ clapped his hands together suddenly, as if something he’d been trying to remember had finally come to him. “Yes! Of course,” he said. “I change my answer to happy.”
This memory has come back to me many times over the years as I’ve parented my two children. I’m really glad my friend asked that seemingly innocent question, though I’m not sure he could have had any idea the profound impact it would have on the way I’ve raised my children. This has been my guiding principle when it comes to parenting my kids: Are they happy? And is the path they are heading down likely to lead to more happiness?
Of course, along with happiness I also expect that my kids are kind, honest, and generous. But those ideals are wrapped up in happiness because I don’t think anyone who is mean, deceitful, or selfish is truly happy.
I think that deep down, most parents really do want our kids to be happy, but sometimes our drive to push them toward what our idea of what happiness is can end up being the very thing that stands in their way. We have all seen parents who push their expectations on their resistant kids, forcefully molding their kids’ ideas about success until they mirror their own. And if any of us have stuck around long enough, we’ve seen many of those same kids grow up to resent their parents for pushing them so hard in a direction they never wanted to go in the first place.
I understand that parents want financial security for their kids. I have experienced both poverty and wealth, and I would be lying if I said there wasn’t comfort in knowing you have more than enough. But I also know the panic of overdrawing my bank account for ten dollars worth of food, and I know from experience that it is possible to be desperately unhappy in the former situation and deliriously happy in the latter.
This isn’t to say parents shouldn’t ever push their kids. I absolutely think we should be our kids’ fiercest cheerleaders, and we should push our kids to develop grit and tenacity and follow-through. But I think we need to do that in the context of what our kids actually want. Let them try lots of new things until they find that one thing that lights a fire of intrinsic motivation in them. We went through soccer, violin, guitar, and now my son has landed on piano, which he practices for several hours per day, playing by ear and studying with a teacher for a brief half hour per week. My son probably won’t be a professional pianist when he grows up, but this kid is happy when he’s playing piano. It’s the only thing that can pull him away from video games without an eye roll. So I encourage it.
I think, as parents, we need to make a conscious effort to let go of our own social, material, and ego-driven expectations. We need to support our kids on their path to happiness and not try to force our hopes on them, especially not the kinds of hopes that are driven by our own personal pride.
And so, though the son I picture now is solid and real, nearly grown and complete with a roster of talents, hopes, and ambitions; and though my 10-year-old daughter has been busy growing into herself too, my little bookworm-artist, my answer to my friend’s question remains the same today as it was 14 years ago: I don’t care what my kids do, as long as they are happy.
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