The Most Important Thing Our Kids Need to Learn Isn't Taught In School

HappinessEvery once in a while, you read an essay in a newspaper or magazine that knocks your perspective sideways, making you decide you're going to live your life just a little bit differently.

I've just read one of those pieces. In it, New York Times writer Timothy Egan wonders about our children's futures, the fear we parents have about them, and the way we groom our kids to believe that, if they work hard and achieve in school, great things await them. The reality, he notes, is that it's a tough world out there, that even the graduates of top colleges are having a hard time finding jobs, and that those jobs are often not all that great.

How do we prepare our kids for that?


During a recent conversation he had with a mother of two grown sons  -- "both graduates from terrific universities, both shackled to college loans as heavy a ship’s anchor," both still looking for work and living at home two years after graduation from college, and both suffering from dwindling self-confidence – the mother asked, "What do I tell them?"

"You can’t lie," Egan writes. "You can’t remind them how special there are, because that was part of the problem. The hope reflex seems phony."

At first, he wasn't sure what to say to that mother, and later something came to him: "Self-worth should never be tied to net worth."

We spend so much time focused on our kids' futures, but how we think about those futures, and what it means about how we spend today, may be seriously out of whack. Do well in school and you'll get a good job and make good money, we teach them, and you will be happy.

But, Egan notes, happiness isn't really about the bottom line. His own father showed him happiness by example, in the simple act of cooking dinner and sorting through his record albums on Saturday nights.

"Maybe if I knew that our children would be coming of age in an economy that would crush even the best and brightest among them, I would have cared a little less about their score on an advanced placement history test, and a little more about helping them find happiness in moments at the margin," he writes.

It's a lesson we parents of younger children, mercifully, still have time to learn. How many times have I yanked my son away from what makes him happiest -- sorting the baseball cards strewn across his bedroom floor – to do the thing I think will set him up for happiness in the long-term: doing his homework, or practicing his saxophone, or … I don't know, something I deem "productive" at that moment?

But Egan has persuaded me to allow my kids to revel a bit longer in those precious, incidental moments of pure joy and contentment. Life is not a race to the finish line – and anyway the finish line is blurry and elusive. Learning to enjoy it along the way may be the greatest life lesson we can share with our kids.

Do you worry about your kids' future?


Image via  ernohannink/Flickr

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