When the media reports yet another study detailing the harm done by helicopter parenting or a real world example of hovering parents obsessed with their kids' achievement, many of us more relaxed parents feel a little pang of relief and pride.
"Thank god I'm not one of those crazy parents bribing college admissions officials or calling my kid's boss," we think. "All I want is for my kids to be happy."
This sounds like just about the most blameless thing a parent can say. After all, who wouldn't focusing on joy over achievement? But according to a new article from a pair of Harvard University education researchers, aiming for happy kids can actually backfire.
Stop being the "mood police."
The message here isn't that obsessing about how many hours your kid is practicing the violin or whether they're on track to get into Harvard is good. The message is that obsessing about your kids happiness is also detrimental to their development, though in different ways.
"In our work over the past decade, we have seen parents, especially those in more affluent communities, increasingly obsessed with their children's moment-to-moment happiness. These parents often act as 'mood police,' obsessively checking in with their children to see how they're feeling," write Richard Weissbourd and Alison Cashin in the Boston Globe.
Wanting joy for your kids is natural, but obsessing about your kids' happiness in this way is a problem for several reasons.
It can make them selfish. If you're always asking your kid how they feel, you may inadvertently end up conveying the message that their feelings are all that matters. "These parenting behaviors can also make children hyper-focused on their own needs and less likely to develop the concern for others and the common good that is vital to healthy communities and a just society," warn Weissbound and Cashin.
They won't learn how to handle negative emotions. "Constantly protecting kids from peer conflicts, failure, or other types of adversity can rob them of coping strategies that are crucial to their long-term happiness," they writes.
It could harm their relationships. This is a corollary to the first worry. Selfishness makes you a lousy citizen, but it also tends to make you a bad friend and partner. "An abundance of studies suggests that strong relationships are one of our most vital and durable sources of well-being throughout our lives," the experts remind us (here's one).
What's the bottom line takeaway? Parents should focus more on kindness than on happiness, starting with demonstrating this value with their own behavior.
Experts agree: chasing happiness can backfire
Weissbourd and Cashin aren't the only experts making the point lately. Wharton professor and bestselling author Adam Grant and his wife, Alison Sweet Grant, made a similar plea for parents to focus more on kindness. While Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman has argued that not just kids but all of us should focus less on happiness and more on the meaning that comes from making an impact in the world, even though that often feels a whole lot less pleasant moment to moment.
So next time you're about to tell yourself, a friend, or your child, "All that matters is being happy," take a moment to reflect. Maybe you should say, "All that matters is making the world a bit happier than you found it" instead.