The happiness blur

My older son turned nine a few weeks ago, and I have no idea what my wife and I gave him as presents. There was a closetful of gifts. I know that much. And I think there was a pogo stick involved, but I only remember that because the kid hopped on it yesterday to impress the new neighbor girl. She’s rumored to be French.

But the point is, the gifts are a blur to me, and I suspect—though he will thoughtfully tell you appreciated them all—they are a blur to him, too. The whole birthday experience was giant blur of happiness. It’s what a parent does, I’m told.

I don’t know if it’s always been this way, but successful modern parenting seems to me something of a simple premise: our job is to make our kids happy. There will be some people—perhaps many—who disagree, but that’s all I really ask out of life. I want my kids to grow up knowing happiness.

And so, there are $80 trips to see Smurfs 2. There is a waffle cone full of Cotton Candy Explosion ice cream. There is a room full of toys on which you might find one or two of my kid’s fingerprints. It’s all in the race toward that goal of making my kid smile.

There is a great disconnect, however, when one thinks about what it takes to achieve that goal of a happy child, because not all happiness is equal. Many if not most moments of happiness happen in a blur, and for kids like mine, that blurry happiness often comes pretty easy. In our effort to make our children happy, we oftentimes simply hand them happiness—temporary, fleeting happiness.

Why? Because that other part of being a parent is the innate desire to protect our children from suffering, need, or want. It hurts us to see them unhappy or frustrated or scared, and so, as if by instinct, we rush them as fast toward happiness as we can. We cover up the temporary discomfort with all-too temporary comfort. Maybe we can’t be blamed, but then again, maybe we should.

Why? Because they can be happier.

I’ve known this for a while—maybe since my own childhood—but it’s only really clicked for me in recent months, and it really hit home today as I watched my son cross the finish line of his second youth triathlon.

The event is a 100m swim, 4-mile bike ride, and 1.3 mile run. For experienced athletic adults, it may not sound like much. That said, I know a great many adults who couldn’t do half of that without a break, and for a nine-year-old kid, it’s a pretty monumental half hour.

Last year after this same event, I—still swollen with pride at my son’s finish—asked this question:

I thought about it for most of the day, and as I go to bed tonight, I wonder what we might be able to learn from that moment. It doesn’t matter if it’s a kid who likes to swim, bike, and run, or a kid who likes to build things, or a kid who draws cars. How many children might succeed if we just took a second to cheer them on?

And it’s been with that thought that I’ve spent the last year watching my older son’s accomplishments—a home run, a diving catch, a 5k run, straight As, etc—with a keener eye. He might not have done all of those things without some help from his parents, but he did them all on his own. What’s more, I guarantee you he will remember them longer than what we gave him for his ninth birthday.

To put a finer point on it, I have a very good friend who is a bit of a fitness expert. His son is entering the tough middle school years in which every physical flaw is amplified and confidence is hard to come by. A few months back, my buddy started taking his son to work out with him. Today, that young boy is out-doing his dad in some things and is as confident as I’ve ever seen him. Put another way, the kid is happier than I ever seen him.

None of this is to suggest that we shouldn’t do the things for our kids that make them smile for a minute. Also, this isn’t to suggest that we should force them into physical pursuits that don’t suit them.

But I wonder if maybe we could think more about the things we can do that will make them smile longer. I wonder what would happen if we let them struggle a little longer, feel the frustration of not being immediately satisfied, and figure out that life isn’t always comfortable.

That is, what is we tried to make ourselves comfortable with the idea that happiness and satisfaction are sometimes things that take work?

I wonder, because today, my kid worked for a kind of happiness I can’t buy at GameStop. He suffered. He sweated. He wanted to puke. He didn’t win, but he shaved time off of every leg of the race from last year, and he knows what he can do to improve. And in the end today, he turned up his head at the finish line and did this. I honestly can’t look at the picture without getting a lump in my throat.



No, I have almost no idea—save Le Pogo Stick—what we gave our kid for his birthday. And maybe that doesn’t matter too much. But today I saw the boy give himself the gift of accomplishment.

It is a reminder to me that for all the 3D movies, boxes of Legos, and ice cream cones in the world, the best gift I can give my kid is the chance for him to say, “Look what I just did.”


If you live in my area, John Harrison and Sugar Creek Fun Runs put this event together for charity and do an amazing job with every race they organize. If you don’t live near Upstate South Carolina, you can find similar races for kids with a simple Google search.

Brad Willis

Brad Willis is a writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. Willis spent a decade as an award-winning broadcast journalist. He has worked as a freelance writer, columnist, and professional blogger since 2005. He has also served as a commentator and guest on a wide variety of television, radio, and internet shows.

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5 Responses

  1. BadBlood says:

    “But today I saw the boy give himself the gift of accomplishment.”

    Good stuff.

  2. NT says:

    Love. This.

  3. someone said something once that stuck with me. “I’m not as concerned if my child is happy now, I’m more concerned that they’re happy 20 years from now.”.

    This can lead to hard choices.

  4. By golly, I think you’re starting to get this Dad thing! Nice piece.

  5. CathyP says:

    Good lesson for all of us …