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Would being high achievers make my kids happier? Or should I let them chill out?

Would being high achievers make my kids happier? Or should I let them chill out?

Romesh Ranganathan.

Successful six-year-olds don’t necessarily become happy adults, so if they want to study hard, great – but there’s nothing wrong with a happy slacker.

It was the first day after half term, and I was walking the kids into school when I found myself stunned by a statement made by one of the other parents: “I know I’m a good parent.” How can you possibly know that? Hope? Yes. Strive? Sure. But know? Like, really know? I would argue that if you “know” you are a really good parent, you almost definitely aren’t. How can you be certain that nothing you have said or done has messed up your kids in some way? When I was a kid, my mum told me I had “cute little boobies” and I didn’t go swimming for six months. I still wear a T-shirt in the pool.

The ultimate aim of any parent is for their children to grow up to be happy. But how the hell do you achieve that? Two of our children are at primary school. We really worry about one of them. The other one makes us worry for the school. Last week, he told us his new favourite word was “vagina” and he was going to say it as much as possible. I’m imagining appropriate context was irrelevant to him. Then I became terrified there would be appropriate context. Or inappropriate context. Basically, I didn’t want him using the word vagina. But you can’t say that to him. If you react with shock or panic, you are basically giving that word magic powers. It suddenly becomes a word that will always get attention and then you are in Sainsbury’s and your kid is saying: “Can I have a fidget spinner? Can I have a fidget spinner? VAGINA.”

Parenting presents dilemmas like this all the time. Recently, my wife told me that some of the parents had been giving their children practice test papers and had arranged for them to have tuition. While this seems excessive for primary school, I understand. Education seems to be placing increased emphasis on assessment and tracking, which means parents are terrified that if their kid doesn’t exceed their expected learning level at six years old, they are immediately put in the class that ends up working at McDonald’s.

But what’s wrong with that? The general assumption by parents seems to be that higher attainment leads to better job prospects, which lead to better pay, which leads to happiness. But studies over the past couple of years show that not to be the case. While it is clear that there is a strong correlation between poor education and mental health issues, what has also been found is that the odds of personal happiness are equivalent regardless of levels of educational attainment. I have taken this to mean that I can stop reading with my kids. And, by that, I mean I can stop feeling bad about not doing it. If happiness is not impacted by attainment, then why the hell are we all making our kids unhappy by forcing them to work harder? If they want to study hard, great; but if they don’t, why not just let them be happy slackers?

I have even begun to wonder if a “normal” upbringing might be detrimental to our children. All of the most interesting people had a horrible time as kids. All the best rappers struggled. Kanye West is a notable exception, but in lieu of a terrible upbringing he is trying his hardest to have a truly dreadful adulthood. I am contemplating sending my children out on to the streets for six months to give them a sense of appreciation and a decent backstory.

I’m not even sure that child labour is a bad thing. It has a bad press and we are instinctively opposed, but I think it suffers from the issues of both being poorly regulated and using the wrong children. We should be using children from this country. Our children are spoilt. The lower labour costs will bring us right back into competitive manufacturing and our children might be a little more grateful. Our second son often shouts: “I don’t want to go to school.” How about you go and make iPhones for a couple of years? We’ll see how much you want to go to school then, mate.

This “happiness dilemma” was brought into sharp focus recently when one of our sons asked if he could play on the Xbox on a weekday. (We have a weekends-only policy, mainly because I am trying to make some progress on Grand Theft Auto.) I said no, and he got upset. He told me he didn’t love me any more. Two things occurred to me at this point: 1) I had directly reduced his immediate happiness and 2) Him telling me he didn’t love me had absolutely no effect. In fact, he taught me a valuable lesson on how transient the idea of love can be. It did make me wonder why we were doing it though. What are we training him for? When he grows up, he will be able to play whenever he wants. The obvious argument is we don’t want him playing it too much. But then, why not just let him play and then if it becomes excessive, just say: “You’re playing it a bit too much”? He will argue, we will have to demand he stops, he will then shout and we will have to discipline him. It appears that the reason we have introduced a “weekends-only” policy is so we can have an easier life.

I don’t think my wife and I are doing a bad job of parenting necessarily, but we have no idea how what we are doing is impacting their future happiness, and I am no closer to figuring out how hard to push them at school. I have noticed, however, that our youngest son has cute little boobies, but I haven’t mentioned it. That’s progress.


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