Happy Kids Make Happy Parents (March/April 2005)

Friday, 01 April 2011 17:53

OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND

March/April 2005

Happy Kids Make Happy Parents

Dorothy Rowe

I avoided the worst of the winter by visiting my son Edward in Sydney. On our way to the beach one day Edward pointed out to me a parked car which had a sticker on its rear window which read, 'Smiles for Kids. Child psychologist' followed by a mobile phone number. 'You ought to have a sticker like that on your car,' he said. I shall spare you the list of suggestions he then produced. Edward has never shown the respect for psychologists which we psychologists think we deserve.

The slogan 'Smiles for Kids' worried me. In Australia most psychologists work privately and are allowed to advertise. There is keen competition for work. Some psychologists feel that their advertisements should include more than a statement of their qualifications and a list of the problems about which they have special expertise. But, if truth in advertising matters, can psychologists guarantee that their clients will live happily ever after?

Advertising slogans are not necessarily aimed at the person who will use the product. They can be aimed at the person who will pay for the product. 'Smiles for Kids' does just that. Most parents for altruistic reasons want their children to be happy, but there is also a selfish reason for parents wanting their children to be happy, or, at least, being seen to be happy. If children smile it is proof that their parents are good parents. Unhappy children are showing that something is wrong. The parents have failed, and are continuing to fail to put things right.

It was significant that 'Smiles for Kids' was being displayed in one of Sydney's wealthiest suburbs. Out in the great sprawl of Sydney's western suburbs, places like Campbelltown and Cabramatta, where unemployment, poverty, drugs, and gang warfare are endemic, parents know that they are doing a good job if their children are healthy, adequately fed, and getting an education. Being happy is an add-on extra for special occasions like Christmas and birthdays. But, in the wealthy suburbs along the beaches and the harbour, children lack for nothing. They get food, clothes, toys, entertainment, holidays, comforts of all sorts in great abundance. They go to the best schools. They exude enormous health. How dare they be unhappy!

Yet many of them are very unhappy, and with good reason. Along with the material things they can get parents who never stop to listen to them, who give them things rather than attention, parents who always think they're right and the child wrong, parents who fight, drink, take drugs, are unfaithful, divorce, have serial partners. They encounter step-parents and step-siblings, family fights over money and all that bitter nonsense that can go on in families. They encounter loss and death. And they encounter their parents' demand that they should appear to be happy.

In past generations children were required to show their gratitude for all that their parents had done for them. I remember being very resentful when my mother demanded my gratitude because by the time I was in my teens I could see that what care she gave me was solely in terms of what other people would say if she failed to provide this care. She saw that I was fed, clothed and attended school, but private matters like my persistent cough and my unhappiness she felt she could safely ignore. I felt sorry for myself then but now I feel even sorrier for children who have to express their gratitude to their parents by being happy. I could get away with a muttered 'Thanks' and a dutiful kiss on my mother's cheek. I didn't have to pretend I was happy all the time.

In the society I grew up in a grateful child was a good child. A good child shows that the parents are good parents. All I had to do was to bear my misery as best I could. Nowadays a happy child is a good child. Children who lead miserable lives not only have to bear their misery as best they can, they have to pretend to be happy. I wonder if the psychologist who promises 'Smiles for Kids' understands this, and so tells the unhappy child that in his situation it is appropriate to be unhappy. Does she help the child to understand the source of his misery and to see that he is not to blame for what adults do? Or will the psychologist side with the parents who are paying his fees and instruct the child in the simplistic techniques which cognitive behavioural therapy allows unthinking, shallow psychologists to use?

All that a psychologist can do for a client, adult or child, is to help him sort out which aspects of his situation are his responsibility and which the responsibility of others, to moderate the condemnatory attitude he has toward himself, and thus acquire the courage and wisdom to deal with the crises, losses and pain life will undoubtedly bring. What's a snappy slogan for that?