Why trying to make our kids happy can backfire

Story highlights

  • Studies show helicopter parenting can lead to less-happy children
  • When parents try to make their kids happy, kids don't develop the skills to be happy, author says
  • Family dinners and gratitude journals can help kids feel connected, grateful and happy

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(CNN)I once interviewed princesses -- real-life princesses! -- for my 4-year-old daughter's birthday party.

Full stop just to let that statement sink in.
Because it is critical to a child's well-being that you find the perfect princess, right?
When it comes to our children's happiness, we modern day parents will go to unbelievable -- yes, sometimes certifiably insane lengths -- all to make our little ones happy.
Children's television host Miss Lori shared how she once engaged in a "desperate two-state" search to find Buzz Lightyear pajamas when her then-toddler son refused to take off the one and only pair she could find that fit him.
Janis Brett Elspas, a mom of four (including triplets) and founder of Mommy Blog Expert, remembers how when she and her husband forgot to play Tooth Fairy, they typed up email apologies and put them under their kids' pillows along with double the amount of money they normally received.
Beth Engelman, co-founder of Mommy on a Shoestring, said her son Jackson started to "collect" safety cards from airplanes every time they flew. When her sister-in-law's parents went to China, her sister-in-law asked her mother to bring back a safety card from China Airlines. She did, despite her husband's protest that it was illegal to remove them.
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"(She) said it was worth risking time in a Chinese prison to make Jackson happy," Engelman wrote in an email.
We have the best intentions -- we're doing what we think is right -- but it's not exactly the ideal approach to help our children live happy lives, according to three parenting experts I interviewed, who together have years of experience working with children and families.

What is happiness?

"In the U.S., we tend to confuse or conflate happiness with gratification and pleasure; usually, that's what we're talking about. And those things are pleasant, but they aren't important in terms of our growth or even our satisfaction with life, even how much we like our lives," said sociologist Christine Carter, author of "Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents."
The question parents need to ask themselves, Carter said, is, "Do we do things to make our children happy because they are happy when we provide them with an iPad to play with or an ice cream cone? Or do we teach them the skills that they need to lead happy, meaningful, fulfilling lives?"
One of the most important skills our kids need to learn to find a truer form of happiness is the ability to be resilient in the face of difficulty so they can find a way to "get back to their happy place when things inevitably go wrong," she said.
But too often, we modern-day parents want to do whatever we can to prevent our children from feeling discomfort and disappointment.
"I think that the parent who is really focused on helping their children be happy all the time is going to protect them from making mistakes and disappointment because disappointment seems like the opposite of happiness and gratification," said Carter, whose newest book is "The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work."
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Laura Markham, a clinical psychologist and founder of AhaParenting.com, said we can teach our kids these important skills even when they are toddlers. Think about when you have a very young child and they break a toy: How often is your first instinct to promise you'll buy the child a new one?
"When we say to the child 'Oh, don't worry. We'll get you another one. Don't cry,' we're giving the child the message that there's something wrong with feelings, bad feelings, the kinds of feelings we think of as bad: sadness, grief, disappointment, fear," said Markham, whose newest book, which will be out in May, is "Peaceful Parents, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life."
"There are a lot of feelings that don't feel good to us, but if our goal is to make our child happy by stopping them from feeling those feelings, by preventing suffering ... we're giving our child the message that there's something wrong with half of the feelings that make us human," she added.
So when your son or daughter doesn't get the part in the school play they worked so hard to get, instead of trying to distract them from that disappointment, we should let them feel it, said Markham, who is also the author of "Peaceful Parents, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting."
"Instead of trying to cheer that child up initially, we could, as parents, honor that grief," she said, telling our kids something like this: "You loved that part. You thought you'd be perfect for it. I know, sweetie. I'm sorry. It's hard when we don't get what we want when we've worked hard to get it."
The child might cry a little and feel glum for a while, but the "next morning, they wake up, the sun is shining and life is still worth living, and not only that, they don't always get what they want, they learn, but they get something better. They get Mom and Dad who understand and who accept all of their feelings so they don't have to hide it when they're disappointed in life," she said.

Harming our kids trying to make them happy

The issue is a huge one for parents today, the experts I spoke with said.
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Studies have found that so-called helicopter parents, the ones likely to do whatever they can to make their children happy, can be hurting their kids.
Helicopter parenting can lead to anxiety and depression in college students, and decreased feelings of autonomy and competence, according to a 2013 study in the Journal of Child and Family Studies.
An investigation led by the University of Arizona found an exaggerated sense of entitlement and more doubt about being able to overcome challenges in adults who were overparented.
And just last month, a new study found that children whose parents overvalued them were more likely to develop narcissistic traits, such as superiority and entitlement.
Carter, the author of "The Sweet Spot," said well-educated and affluent kids are at higher risk for crippling depression and anxiety than they ever have been before.
"They are so stressed and so pressured, they do not know what makes them happy," she said. "They know what Mom and Dad want for them. They know what would make society happy. ... They know what everybody else expects for them. They do not know who they are or what they want."
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Child and family psychologist Kristen Race, founder of Mindful Life, which provides brain-based solutions for families, schools and businesses to cope with today's stresses, points out how last year, an American Psychological Association survey found that when school was in session, teens were the most stressed group of people in America.
A big part of the problem is that connection, a core ingredient for happiness, is missing, said Race, author of "Mindful Parenting," which provides solutions for raising happy kids in today's chaotic world.
"We don't experience as much connection as we did a generation ago. We no longer live in multigenerational homes. We communicate differently, very much through screens or phones or texts, and all of that really impacts our happiness," she said.
Race said people who have a lot of close relationships with friends and family experience a greater well-being and personal happiness. They are also less likely to experience sadness, loneliness and low self-esteem.
"When we're well-connected and attached to our kids, they are more likely to share things with us, they're more likely to do what we ask them to do, and they're just much more enjoyable to be around, so we have to be intentional about creating those connections," she said.

How we can help kids live happy lives

Simple rituals and routines go a long way in building connections with our kids that can help them live happy lives, Race said.
She's a big proponent of family dinners or what she calls "Doughnut Sunday" or "Milkshake Friday," which are little opportunities for you and your child to connect face to face. Bedtime routines that allow for some connected time are valuable, and so is shooting a game of hoops or playing chess with your kids when you get home from work, as opposed to plopping down on the couch and watching television together, she said.
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One of the most profound and simplest practices for increasing happiness is gratitude, said Race. "We know that adults who practice gratitude are 25% happier ... and kids who formally practice gratitude get better grades, they're more socially integrated, (and) they show fewer signs of depression."
To help kids learn gratitude, Race suggests gratitude journals for older kids, in which they write down three to five things they're grateful for each night and make that part of the bedtime routine.
For younger kids, she recommends what she calls a gratitude jar, where everyone in the family writes down on scrap paper what they are thankful for during the week and then at the end of the week, the family empties the jar, and everyone goes around the table, reading what has been written.
Another game she suggests is "Rose, Bud, Thorn," in which everyone shares a "rose," which is a good experience they had during the day; a "bud," which is an act of kindness they witnessed or initiated; and a "thorn," which is a mistake they learned from that day.
"This allows kids to get the opportunity to see that their parents make mistakes too and that mistakes are opportunities for growth," Race said. "You don't have to feel defeated by them."

How parenting has changed

The quest to make our kids the happiest they can be is certainly a more recent phenomenon. For those of us who grew up in the '60s and '70s, our parents were not doing statewide searches for pajamas, and they most certainly were not trying to find the right princess for a birthday celebration.
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"I don't think there was a focus on parenting as such. I don't think it was even a verb in those days, " said Markham, the AhaParenting.com founder.
"You raised your children, it was part of life, whereas now if you're a good parent, there are a million things that you're supposed to be able to tick off in that box. Did you make homemade cupcakes for the class birthday party? I mean, my goodness, that's not what makes you a good parent ... but we get confused."
And, that parenting perfectionism combined with modern-day stresses can sometimes push us to make decisions that are more about the short-term, Race said.
"When parents are stressed and overwhelmed and exhausted, it's like survival mode. You're going to do what's easiest for the quick fix," she said.
"So we tend to deny ourselves experiences and prioritize buying material things because we think, 'Oh, this is going to last a lot longer than that trip to the Grand Canyon,' but the reality is, in terms of happiness, we get more pleasure -- and more longer-lasting pleasure -- from an experience than we do from the new iPhone or the new iPad."
Carter, the author of "Raising Happiness," wholeheartedly agrees. "In our sort of very materialistic and consumer-oriented culture, we confuse not only happiness with pleasure but pleasure with love, the pleasure that stuff provides love.
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"So we might feel guilty and then buy the ice cream cone because we know it will make our kids feel good, but what would actually make them feel good is a real positive emotion, which is a sense of connection with (us)."
Parenting is no doubt one of the toughest jobs on the planet, but I think we'd all agree that one of the most important roles as a parent is teaching our kids how to live. Many of us are falling very short and are not teaching our kids the "art of being fully alive," Markham said.
"We're teaching them how to try to game the system and distract ourselves with our devices and our screens and do what makes us happy in the moment instead of realizing that true happiness comes from something much deeper, which is really more about what your grandmother told you would make you happy. It's about living a good life and being a good person."
What do you think is the best way to help our children live happy lives? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv or CNN Living on Facebook.