The downside of trying to make your child happy

Smiles are fun, but sometimes saying ‘no’, and the resulting tears, bring us closer together.

setting limits for kids

Do you want your child to be happy?

I don’t know a single person who would say ‘no’ to that question.

There is a difference though between wanting your child to live a life full of joy, and trying to make him happy all day, every day.

In modern parenting, it can often seem like that’s the expectation. Social media is full of pictures of smiling children. Because we all live such busy lives, we may feel guilty that we can’t spend more time with our children, so when we do spend time with them, they have to be happy.

But is this really best for our children?

Keeping them smiling every moment can take away from one of out most important, though sometimes least fun, roles as parents: setting limits.

Why are limits so important?

While children don’t always want limits, it is unquestionably what they need.

Children have an innate drive to keep testing until they find the limit. They need to know where the boundary lies and if that isn’t clear, they will keep testing. This is not only exhausting for us as parents, it’s utterly exhausting for the child as well.

A child knows on some level that he is failing to be his best self and that doesn’t feel good.  At the same time, he is driven to keep testing until the limit is clear.  If limits are clearly defined and consistently enforced, children can relax and stop testing, knowing with confidence what the result will be.

Limits are also important because they make children feel safe.

While young children very much want to assert their will, they don’t really want to be the ones in charge. They need to know that someone else, someone they trust, is watching out for them and is in control of the situation.

When parents set consistent limits, children see that the adult is in charge and they can relax and focus on the work of being a child, on playing and exploring and trusting that you’ll catch them if they fall.

If you’re trying to keep your child happy all the time, it will be very difficult to hold a firm line and enforce a limit.

Accepting your child’s reaction when you set a limit

Even if you know that maintaining firm limits and boundaries is good for your child, it can be hard in practice.

Upholding limits may mean saying “no” to one more bedtime story when your rule is two books.

It may mean not giving in when your child is writhing on the floor begging for more goldfish instead of his lunch.

It may frequently mean that your child is angry or crying, instead of smiling, because you didn’t give in.

When you decide to set firm limits, it’s important to recognize that you can’t control your child’s reaction to those limits. Especially if your child is used to you giving in, he will likely have strong feelings about this change.

If your child is throwing a tantrum because you won’t give in to what he wants, take a deep breath and remind yourself that this is what’s best for both of you.  You will have a stronger, healthier relationship if you are able to set boundaries. Your child will feel secure in the knowledge that you’re in charge and he will respect you for it.

What to do instead: Striving for joy, rather than constant happiness

It’s hard to see your child upset, especially knowing that you could stop it so easily by giving into his demands.

If you’re struggling with his reaction to your limit, focus on the closeness you’re cultivating by holding your ground.  Know that you are laying the foundation for a relationship that is truly strong, built on trust, and free of the resentment that comes from letting someone push past the boundaries you need to be happy yourself.

Be present with your child during his meltdown. You don’t need to say much at all, just be nearby, available for the hugs and cuddles that frequently come once he’s done releasing his big feelings.

This shows him that you are in charge, that you are comfortable with all of his feelings, not just the happy ones, and that you will always be there for him, even when it’s hard.

The comfort he finds in your strength will bring him a much greater joy than getting the purple cup or the extra cookie or the shiny new toy.

Sometimes saying ‘no’ in the moment means saying ‘yes’ to a healthy relationship with your child. It means setting him up for success by letting him experience disappointment and learning how to cope with it. It means being okay with being the “bad guy” so that he can have the structure he needs to feel safe.

Letting go of the responsibility for keeping your child constantly happy will give you the energy you need to be there with him when he’s sad, hurt or angry, even with it’s directed at you. It will open up new possibilities for your relationship with your child and release you from trying to control someone else’s emotions, which is always a losing battle.