“Allowing children to be unhappy is the key to raising a happy child. It may seem contradictory, but it’s effective,” said Tovah P. Klein in an article titled “The Key to Raising a Happy Child is to Allow Them to Be Unhappy.” Tovah P. Klein is the Director and Teacher at the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development. Amy Morin, LCSW, author of “How to Raise Happy Kids to Success in Life,” expressed a similar sentiment. Amy Morin is a bestselling author, psychotherapist, and instructor at Northeastern University in Boston. She states that providing children with a healthy and happy life means preparing them for future success. However, raising a happy child is not about constantly indulging them and satisfying their every desire. In reality, it often involves the opposite.
According to Amy, a happy child is one who possesses the skills to enjoy long-term happiness. A happy child is capable of delaying instant gratification in their pursuit of goals. The role of parents is crucial in developing these skills through healthy lifestyle habits. While many individuals have their own definitions of happiness, it is generally understood as a state or feeling of contentment and satisfaction (not just temporary joy). Happiness encompasses both internal and external experiences.
Courtney E. Ackerman, MA, explains in the Positive Psychology journal what happiness means as an internal and external experience. When a child builds a tower with their toys or completes a puzzle, they experience internal happiness. On the other hand, external happiness is derived from the fulfillment of desires, such as receiving a gift. Happiness, although not permanent, is more stable compared to feelings of joy. Happiness can endure, while pleasure comes and goes within seconds.
Many parents agree that a happy child will be adaptable and ready to face challenges. Therefore, it is not surprising that when parents strive to make their children completely happy, they feel guilty when their children experience disappointment, sadness, or cry. Parents need to understand that what children need is internal happiness—happiness derived from struggle—rather than solely relying on external happiness. Parents who solely focus on external happiness are essentially raising children with a hedonistic lifestyle, relying on pleasure for happiness. This pleasure-seeking behavior is primarily focused on physical aspects, such as sex, debauchery, or drugs, as mentioned in the Ethics Unwrapped journal.
Delaying gratification and experiencing temporary disappointment and unhappiness is a significant topic in child rearing. In fact, experiments on this topic were conducted by Walter Mischel, Ph.D., at Stanford University over 50 years ago. Preschool children were subjected to experiments to delay gratification. They were given a marshmallow with the instruction: “If you eat it immediately after I leave, you’ll only get one marshmallow. But if you can wait until I come back, you’ll get two.”
Why is it important for children to learn to delay gratification or have their desires not be immediately fulfilled? Why do children sometimes need to experience disappointment? A study titled “Can the Kids Wait? Today’s Youngsters May Be Able to Delay Gratification Longer Than Those of the 1960s” in the Journal of the American Psychological Association (APA) reported that the ability to delay gratification in early childhood is believed to shape good behavior in adolescence, adulthood, and beyond. Good behavior includes academic achievements, maintaining a healthy weight, effectively managing stress and frustration, having social responsibility, and building good relationships with peers.
Unfortunately, according to Tovah Klein, parents often struggle to accept that their children can be angry, sad, and sometimes unhappy. When children experience disappointment, parents instinctively rush to comfort or distract them from their disappointment. Children are not given the space and time to manage.