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How much do you agree with this statement? The happiness of my children is more important to me than my own happiness. A little? A lot? Totally? Not at all?

How about this statement, then? My children make my life meaningful. Yes? No? Maybe?

According to a study conducted at the University of British Columbia, the answers to questions like these separate the happy parents from the frustrated ones. Happy parents live for their kids.

With all the fuss about “helicopter parents” and spoiled brats, you might be surprised. But the authors of the study aren’t suggesting that parents set no limits on their children’s behavior or become obsessively controlling of their kids’ every move. They’re not and happy parents do not. But they are saying that focusing on children’s happiness and well-being helps moms and dads enjoy their kids more and feel satisfied with their parenting role.

The study came about when researchers noticed that although popular thinking suggests children are a drain on parents, there isn’t much scientific support for that idea. So they conducted two studies with 322 parents who had at least one child under 18 living at home. In the first study, the parents were given a list of questions like the two above and also a survey that measures happiness. They found that the more strongly parents agreed that focusing on children was important and meaningful to them the happier those parents actually were.

In the second study, the 322 parents were asked to recall their activities from the previous day and describe how they felt during each one. Parents who scored more highly on child-centered thinking from the first study were more likely to report positive feelings about their day’s activities. They also were less likely to report negative feelings, and more likely to report feeling good while doing things with or for their kids.

Study leader Dr. Claire Ashton-James said, “In short, when it comes to parental well-being, you reap what you sow.” The more parents invest in their parenting and the more supportive of their children they are, the happier their entire lives appear to be.

Bah, humbug? I don’t think so. Other studies have found that being engaged in an important, challenging project increases life satisfaction. Studies have demonstrated that strong connections with others and a sense of commitment to a cause keep us getting out of bed in the morning. And studies have shown, over and over, that a positive attitude leads to positive outcomes.

So where’s the fine line? Where’s the line between focusing on one’s children in a healthy way and making everyone miserable by trying to run kids’ lives? Where’s the fine line between helping children be happy and letting them do whatever they want?

When we focus on other people and their happiness, we support their development. We guide them and give them support but we also keep them from making huge mistakes. Happy parents work in this zone between being too strict and not being strict at all. They communicate that they love their kids and are there to assist them. Not to “make them happy” or to “tell them what to do” but to assist them in growing up.

It’s a fine line, fine in every sense of the word. To have a fine life with your children, it’s a line worth walking.


© 2014, Patricia Nan Anderson. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Ask for Dr. Anderson’s new book, Parenting: A Field Guide, at your favorite bookstore.