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A Parent Is Only As Happy As Their Saddest Child

(3 minute read)

There’s a great deal of truth in the aphorism that is the title of this article, and others like it. The Chinese have an expression which translates into “Raise a child for a hundred years and worry about them for 99.” And there’s a Jewish proverb which says “Little kids, little problems; big kids, big problems.”

Of course, we all hope that if we do our parenting job right, we won’t be sad. They’ll be happy which will allow us to be happy. They won’t give us reason to worry, and they won’t give us problems. All we need to do for that to happen is read dozens of parenting books, get them into the right schools, have them mix with the right friends, give them the right skills, etc. etc. Easy, right?


It’s not news that all of us make our share of parenting mistakes. We hold ourselves up to an ideal and criticize ourselves fiercely for falling short, then promise we’ll do better in the future. And then fall short again. And as we make our mistakes, there’s a credit card account of screw-ups that is filling up. As long as our kids are doing fine, that account stays out of our awareness.

But when things go wrong, that bill comes due. We open it up to see all the things we did wrong that caused our child to go off the rails. The self recrimination begins, and we punish ourselves for years, or even for the rest of our lives. We worry about our children, step in to help and try to fix things.

There are a couple of truths about raising children that are worth keeping in mind, things that can help us feel better no matter how sad our child is.

Raising Kids Is A Gamble

This doesn’t mean it’s all luck. Rather, it means that you can’t be sure about the impact of anything you do. You may know that the chances of things turning out well are better with this course of action than with that, but you never know how each child will interpret what you do. Encourage one child to get good grades and she may hear “You’re capable, smart and I have faith in you” while a different child might hear a terrifying threat: “I won’t love you unless you do well at school.” Hold one child to a strict allowance and he learns limits and discipline leading to self-esteem; another child would feel excluded from a peer group whose parents are more liberal and comes away with damaged self-esteem.

I’ve had clients who were raised in homes by alcoholic, critical, angry parents who went so far as to threaten their child with a gun. Some were devastated by the experience, while others went and found other adults — grandparents, uncles, aunts and even neighbors — who showed them the love they needed, and ended up being strong, brave and adventurous adults who still cared for their troubled parents. The fact is that our futures are determined far more by what went right in our lives than by what went wrong.

So forgive yourself for your mistakes. Things would probably have turned out differently if you hadn’t made them — but you can’t be sure they would have turned out better. In fact, the mistakes you made might well have given your child unexpected reservoirs of strength that will help them have a better life. You never know how things are going to turn out in the course of their life; perhaps they’ll suffer for your mistakes in the short term, but benefit later on. As Deng Xiaoping said when he was asked whether the French Revolution was a good thing or not, “It is too early to tell.”

You Can’t Manage Your Children’s Lives

We often fool ourselves into thinking that our influence on our children is paramount, and that good parenting leads to good, happy and successful children. We are responsible for their lives, and if their lives do not turn out well that is our fault: we are bad parents, and by extension, bad people.

To which I reply: Really? You think you are so powerful, so important that you can make or ruin another person’s life? There is only one person’s life over which you have control, and that’s your own. On one level, this is scary: you don’t have control over your child’s future. On another level, it’s very liberating. After all, the most stressful situation is one in which you are responsible for the outcome, but have no control over what happens. Your child is going to have their own life, and having you try to run it for them is an exercise in frustration.

You Are More Than Just a Parent

You will spend, perhaps, a quarter of your life raising a child. It may be the single most important job you have, but it’s not the only one. If you define yourself by the success and happiness of your child, then you place your own happiness in the hands of that person. Not only is this risky for you, it also places a tremendous burden on your child: now they’re not only responsible for their own life, they have to be responsible for yours too. This can cause them to pull back from you and share only things that will make you happy: they know that telling you of their fears, weaknesses and failures will make you anxious, so they show you only what you want to see.

Their Failures Don't Make You a Bad Person

If you are able to define yourself as more than just a parent, it follows that your child’s success or failure is not a reflection on how worthy a person you are. You have many other roles in life: sibling, offspring, employee, friend, boss, community member, mentor and so on. The role of parent is just one among many. And your child’s success or failure has a good sized chunk of luck in it too: the child’s disposition plus your parenting style may work out great, or not so well. Not to mention that life’s circumstances can throw a spanner in the works, or the opposite.

None of this is to say that your child’s success and failures, joys and despairs will not impact you. It does, however, mean that you can be happier than your saddest child.


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