Both my research– and other studies– indicate that American parents and children view happiness and self-esteem as the main aims of development, often placing happiness above morality. Yet the irony is that when parents prioritize their children’s happiness or self-esteem over their attentiveness and care for others, children are not only less likely to be moral: they are less likely to be happy in the long run. Too much attention to how children feel moment to moment, and to how they feel about themselves, can make children preoccupied with their own feelings and less able to tune in to or organize themselves around others. It can deprive children of key capacities they need to have gratifying relationships– to be good friends, colleagues, parents, grandparents– the true source of lasting well-being.
Both for their sake and for society’s sake, we would do better to relinquish happiness as the main goal of child-raising. I want to make the case for focusing instead on our children’s maturity. Maturity, including the ability to manage destructive feelings, to balance and coordinate our perspectives and needs with those of others, to receive feedback constructively, to be reflective and self-critical-to fairly and generously assess our behavior– is a strong basis for both morality and lasting well-being. It is these capacities that enable children and adults to appreciate others despite conflicts of interest or differences in background, to adhere to important principles and to engage in sturdy, meaningful relationships and endeavors that create lasting self-worth. These capacities reflect the strength and integrity of the self. ( It’s important to remember here that self-esteem and the strength or maturity of the self are quite different, yet they are often confused, a confusion that stems from the fact that our vocabulary of the self is so impoverished, our language about the self so crude and vague. Though some violent children, research shows, have high self-esteem, the self that is being esteemed is immature, incapable of empathy, unable to integrate others’ needs with its own, unaware of itself, unable to control intense feelings.)
As parents, teachers, sports coaches or other mentors, we nurture our children’s healthy maturity in many different ways, but the following practices are most central:
1. The self becomes stronger and more mature less by being praised than by being known. That means that it’s important that our interactions with our children generally reflect our knowledge of them. This knowledge should be reflected when we choose an activity for them, talk to them about their day, help them solve a personal problem. It’s important, too, that we are able to reflect back to children at key moments something about who they are-not a steady stream of observations but an occasional knowing observation about a particular quality. We might take note, for example, of tasks that come easily to them, challenges they seem to avoid, or things that capture their interest or bore them.
2. Children come to be reflective and self-critical chiefly when we encourage their self-observations and when we model for them honest self-reflection. It is by dealing insightfully and candidly with our own flaws that we give children permission and a map to engage those qualities about themselves that they find troubling. A father I know, for example, talked to his children about his being too critical of other people. In that single reflection, this father encouraged his children to think about whether they have the same flaw, reduced the stigma his children may feel in talking about a weakness, informed his children about a quality that he does not intend to model, and encouraged them to reflect on the fairness of their own assessments of others.
3. When we demonstrate a capacity to change a troubling behavior as a result of our self-reflections, or as a result of feedback, we model a vital aspect of maturity. We also express a critical form of respect and appreciation for children and other family members who are often most hurt by these behaviors. One single mother I know, Beth, told me about a time, after a long and stressful day, when her ten-year-old daughter broke a glass while setting the table. Beth rolled her eyes and sighed in disgust at the mess, at which her daughter burst into tears and said, “You are always so mean when you’re making dinner!” Beth, immediately remorseful, told her daughter that she’d been having a tough time at work-that a new perfectionist boss was expecting too much of her-and that she realized that that pressure was making her irritable and causing her to do with her daughter exactly what the boss was doing to her-expect too much. Beth apologized, told her daughter that she was right to give this feedback, and “promised to leave the perfectionism to her boss.”
4. Among the many ways that children learn to deal with difficult feelings such as frustration and anger is when we model the appropriate expression of these emotions and don’t let our own frustration and anger corrode our relationships with our children. When I’m angry at my children, I have a tendency at times to stew. I thus try hard to express anger in simple, clear terms and to reestablish some connection with them fairly quickly after I show anger or after a fight.
5. One critical way children learn to control hostile feelings toward others as well as coordinate their needs with others is by developing the ability to take a third-person perspective, stepping outside a relationship. We can specifically ask children to imagine how they would handle a difficult situation if they were “being their best self,” or to imagine how a person they admire would handle this situation.