Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Stop telling your kids: ‘All I want is for you to be happy’

Ethical Reflections with Rev. Ian Markham: Stop telling your kids: ‘All I want is for you to be happy’
The Rev. Ian Markham (Photo/Virginia Theological Seminary)

Happiness is subjective. At a certain time in my youth, happiness was playing video games – and just FYI it takes a long time to become good at a video game. Happiness was long evenings, imbibing just a tad too much and sleeping in until 11 a.m. Happiness was curled up with a book, ignoring everything that was going on around me. Happiness was a beach vacation. Hedonism was happiness.

Last week, my wife and I decided to add a puppy to the family. Conscious that we should aim for at least 10,000 steps a day, we trusted that a dog would be a life-enhancing part of our life. A delightful labradoodle called Maddie arrived.

This 10-week bundle of energy is all absorbing. We are at that stage where at least two trips are needed during the night; constant vigilance for the sniffing process that is the sure sign that Maddie needs to go outside; and the accidents that require a calm response even if the mess is on that rather nice rug in the living room.

No one would say that happiness is having your nights constantly disturbed or clearing up a mess in the house. Yet there is a deep sense of joy that becomes part of the rhythm of the home. The bond is already deep between the dog and the family. There is a beauty in watching a dog discover, learn and encounter.

Adding a puppy to a household is a taste of what is involved when one adds a child. Life gets extremely complicated with a newborn. And every step of the child’s growth is demanding. Potty training is stage one; educational attainment is next; navigating and avoiding the dangers of living – the potential sheer stupidity of the adolescent brain; and watching the child grow into adulthood where one feels the child’s every hurt, pain and disappointment. This is not the happiness of one’s youth.

Yet almost every parent finds the child brings more joy than anything else. There is a privilege in raising a child. And there is a love that goes deep – perhaps transcending all other forms of love. There is a reason why Jesus explained that the best analogy for the relationship of God to humanity is the analogy of a parent to children!

The truth about living is that finding deep, abiding joy means taking a long journey through frustration, exhaustion and sheer monotony. Hours of life are spent loading and unloading the dishwasher, taking the trash out, cleaning the bathrooms, remembering to get the car emissions test done and just coping with everyday living. We are a long way from the definition of the happiness in my youth.

Most of the deeply satisfying aspects of living are obtained through hard, gratifying work – getting credentials, learning to do a job well, using one’s gifts to the fullest and being present to a family even when you would rather do something else. As one ages, the ephemeral forms of youthful happiness are rare gifts that bring back memories and provide a delightful break from the constant quest for deep abiding joy.

We have one solitary precious life. The shift from the youthful indulgence to the joyful quest either will be imposed or will happen voluntarily. In the end, the life of video games and excessive socializing will need a salary – and a salary needs employment.

The shift will be forced on a person as that reality sinks in. But it is better that it happens voluntarily. And the voluntary shift is best done by parents simply saying, “Stop telling me that you want to play video games, instead go and empty the dishwasher.”

For herein lies the paradox; the appropriately demanding childhood is more likely to open the up the possibility of the deep abiding joy that makes all of life worthwhile.

The writer is is dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary.