You Can’t Make Your Children Happy

Last Monday, I almost cheated on the National Mythology Exam.

That morning, Zach and Ezra joined several other students from the mythology class I taught last semester to take the test.  They gathered around my dining room table, nerves on edge, scantron sheets in front of them, and number two pencils in hand.  I couldn’t wait for them to start.  They had studied hard, they knew the material, and I was fairly confident that most of them would earn a gold medal, awarded to students who received perfect scores.

But something went wrong on question number three. Ezra got visibly upset, asked me to define a word in one of the choices, and then proceeded to fill in the wrong answer.  He read the question, “Eris is the companion of Ares who ____________,” as “Eris is the companion of Ares, who _____________.”

With that misunderstanding, he chose an answer that described Ares, not Eris.  There would be no gold medal for Ezra.

I so wanted to re-read the question for him and explain the word he didn’t understand.  If there weren’t several other mothers in the room, I very well might have.  After all, it wasn’t a vocabulary test.  And he knew this material inside and out.  He had gotten perfect scores on several practice tests.  Why should an imagined comma and the word strife trip him up?  Ezra knew who Eris was.  Isn’t that what mattered?

If I were the one in charge of sending the tests in to be scanned, I’m not sure I could have resisted the urge to change his answer.  When I told him that he got one wrong, he screamed and cried.  It broke my heart.

Even though I know that a gold medal in a mythology exam is meaningless.  Even though I know he will learn a lot from the experience.  Even though, as he said in family devotions later that week, God may be trying to teach him to be humble.  Even though.  Even though.  It was hard to let him fail to reach his goal.

Which got me thinking again about camp.  In Homesick and Happy, psychologist Michael Thompson writes that we can’t make our children happy or give them self-esteem.  Suffering and struggle are important parts of life; and mastery, not adoration or unearned success, lead to self-esteem.  In an age where parents are increasingly tuned in to their child’s every emotional shift and invest ever more time and energy into their child’s carefully planned out development, the thought of letting them be miserable is nearly unbearable.

But bear it we must.  Because our unwillingness to let them struggle and fail is making them anxious, dependent, and unable to do the hard work of cultivating the dreams, disciplines, and relationships that make life joyful, if not always happy.

Thompson’s solution to this problem is to send them to camp.  I don’t buy it that camp is the magic pill to cure what ails us.  But I was convinced by his book that some time away from their parents, taking risks, overcoming hardships and fears, and developing new skills and relationships unmediated by my meddling influence, would be a good thing for our kids.  So off they go to sleep-away camp.

And when they have to pass the knife safety test before they are allowed to work alone in the wood shop, I won’t be there to help them cheat.

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  • Annette Bannister

    What a terribly written question. Good for you for resisting the urge to help him out, but still. Wow. I might write the test makers about that one. There are lessons to be learned by questioning authority, too.

    • Tara Edelschick

      I thought the same, Annette. But we a little too much questioning authority going on here, if you know what I mean.

      • Annette Bannister

        Oh, that’s funny. It’s true that we do have to know when to push and when to accept. Modeling that balance is important, too!! We don’t always have to push, even when we’re right. That’s a hard lesson for me personally, one I find myself learning over and over, particularly in my close relationships with my husband and children.