The perpetually happy child myth

During the week between Christmas and New Year’s, our daycare center was closed, leaving me and Joe juggling Lily while trying to squeeze in our work responsibilities. So one morning, I took her to Jungle Java – essentially an indoor park with a cafe – when it opened at 8:30 a.m. We had the place to ourselves, which was blissful, for about 45 minutes, and Lily could climb and go down the slide to her heart’s content.

But then an onslaught – perhaps a large playgroup or a birthday party – of young kids and parents invaded, and Lily suddenly found herself physically overrun and stressed. I started to lead her away from the equipment for a few minutes, so she’d get out of the overwhelming crowd, and I offered a few food options; but she became more hysterical rather than less. (As Joe and I say in these moments, “Lily has left the building.”)

She wouldn’t let me hold her, arching her back away from me, and food and toys were of zero interest. So I laid her out on the carpeted floor of one corner and let her scream while I sat on a nearby couch. I tucked my legs underneath my body and cupped my chin in my hand and watched my daughter cry and writhe inconsolably on the floor. I felt, as I always do in this situation, like Nero playing his violin as Rome burned. But really, what else is there to do in these moments?

Of course, usually these moments happen in our house rather than in public. Yes, the general noise of playing children drowned out much of Lily’s screaming, but still, I saw people look to our corner and quickly look away. And this is the perverted push-and-pull of parenting. When your child is perfectly content in public, you feel almost smug about your competence as a parent, particularly when another child is throwing a fit. When the shoe is on the other foot, and your child is the one raging against the world, you resent the (perhaps paranoid) sense of being judged by other parents in the immediate vicinity.

And while neither snapshot is remotely representative of the complexities of a parent-child relationship, this blame/credit instinct we have speaks to how we think that our child’s apparent happiness conveys our success/failure as a parent.

This sets us up to fail, inevitably, since no one – I repeat, no one – is happy all the time. Why would a toddler, who is tantalizingly close to being able (but still, ultimately, unable) to communicate her wants and fears, and who generally has no control over where she’s being taken, be perpetually content? It only makes sense that kids sometimes get frustrated and angry; so why do we think we’re failures as parents when they do?

Perhaps because we’ve been indoctrinated with this lie. We’ve absorbed the myth of the perpetually happy child; and the overachievers among us particularly have difficulty believing that this is something beyond our best efforts and control. 

But it is – which brings us back to Jungle Java. After being spurned by screaming, kicking Lily a few times, I resumed my calm supervision of her tantrum. Eventually, when I tried to reach out to her, she let me pull her up and hold her to me. “I know things get scary sometimes,” I said. “But I’m not going anywhere. I’m right here.”

She snuffled and whimpered her way back to Earth, and I brushed my hand over her hair, kissing the top of her head. “You want to go on the slide a few more times and go home?” “Yeah,” she said, nodding and leading me by the hand to the equipment.

There were still too many kids in the place for her to handle – she got a little upset as they bulldozed past her – but I led her up, and went down the adjacent slide with her twice, holding her little hand. And though she usually puts up a fight about leaving Jungle Java, that morning, she willingly poked her arms into the sleeves of her coat and pulled on her red knit hat that looks like it has a green stem on top.

Hang on, little tomato, I thought. Just hang on.

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