Raising “Good” Children vs. Raising “Happy” Children

Shawn Larsenchildren, families, general, Happiness, Mormon 32 Comments

This one is for you parents and aspiring parents out there.  How would you answer the following question:  Is it more important to you that your child be “good,” or that he/she be “happy”?  Hold on to your initial responses — I don’t think it’s such an easy question. 

Several weeks ago, during the third-hour meeting on a Ward Conference Sunday, a former counselor in my Stake Presidency spoke to all Elders and High Priests about fatherhood.  He framed his message around an anecdote concerning his own five children, all of whom are out of the house, are active in the Church, and range in age from marrieds with children to a recently returned missionary.  He had asked each of them (for some unexplained reason):  “Do you think it is more important to me that you be ‘happy’ or that you be ‘good’?”  He did not provide any definition for the operative terms.  Four of the five automatically answered “good,” which apparently was the right answer and pleased the father very much.  The fifth child answered “happy,” which troubled the father, who questioned whether he had done enough to impress upon this boy the importance of the Gospel.  A few days later, much to the father’s relief, the son called back, and said he wanted to change his answer to “good.”  Familial harmony was achieved.  The lesson to we congregants was, teach your children to be “good,” not just “happy.”

As I have mentioned in other posts, I am the father of three (mostly) wonderful daughters, ages 7, 5 and 2, so parenting issues are always on my mind.  This talk, in particular, has been rattling around in my brain for several weeks.  I didn’t think much about it on first listen; I agree with the abiding principle that we fathers need to pull our weight in rearing our children in the Gospel (in other words, quit depending on our wives to prepare FHE lessons all the time).   But something about the question the speaker posed to his children didn’t sit right with me, although I could not quite put my finger on why.  A couple of days later, as I was driving home from work, I heard a story on NPR (read it here) that helped bring things into focus for me.

The story profiled two families here in the US raising young children who are experiencing issues with gender identity confusion.  In each family, a son, under the age of 6 or so, had started exhibiting markedly “feminine” behaviors as early as age two:  they wanted to be called girls, they wanted to be referred to by a girl’s name, they played exclusively with “girl” toys (i.e., Barbies; all of their stuffed animals were girls), they dressed up in their mothers’ clothes to the point of obsession, etc.  Neither of the familiies had any experience with such issues, and hence felt overwhelmed by the situation.  To deal with it, they took contrary paths. 

Family #1 decided to raise their son as their daughter; in their words, they had “come to accept” that their child, unfortunately, had been born into the wrong body.  They acceded to their chid’s requests by, among other things, referring to the child using feminine pronouns, giving “her” a girl’s name, buying “her” little girl clothes, and so on.  The mother spoke passionately about the fear and guilt she felt during her first trip to Target to buy the dress her child had been requesting for weeks.  She kept asking herself, “am I doing the right thing?”   This child’s joy upon receiving the dress (she wore it for weeks until it literally fell of her body) was reassuring.   So, the conclusion they came to was that, if being a girl is what makes this child happy, then they would do everything they could to ensure that happiness, regardless of how odd or strange it may seem to them.  At the same time, these parents were no Pollyannas; they recognized that their decision will have long-term consequences for their child, many of which likely will result in great unhappiness, such as potential social ostracization.  Nevertheless, they were committed to allowing their child to seek “her” own path. 

Family #2, on the other hand, took a very different approach.  Working with a therapist, they sought to curb, and ultimately squelch, their child’s feminine nature.  For example, they replaced the “girl” toys with “boy” toys, they declined requests for girl clothes and feminine haircuts, and they continued to refer to the child using masculine pronouns.  These parents, too, spoke with passion about the pain they felt as they took away their child’s favorite doll, and their feelings of inadequacy as they tried to explain what was happening to their son.  Put away your prejudices — these people were not religious zealots who talked about the issue in terms of sin.  Rather, they felt that gender was fixed by nature, and hence, the best way to raise their child was in the “right” way, as a boy, even if that means denying him things he desires.  The hope is that, while this decision may cause some pain now, it will lead to future happiness through the elimination of gender confusion.  The equated the issues to an African-American child who wanted to be a white.  Allowing the child to “be white” was the wrong answer.

Listening to this story, my heart went out to both sets of parents.  It was obvious from hearing them speak that they both love their sons very much, are not passing judgment on them for their femininity, and are honestly seeking to do make the right choice for their family.  Not being an expert on this issue and having never faced it personally, I am no position to criticize either approach.  Indeed, I think there are equal numbers of advantages and disadvantages to either strategy.  

These parents, and their differing viewpoints helped me see what made me unconfortable about the stake presidency member’s question.  It is premised on the dual notions that (i) true “happiness” can only be achieved through righteousness; put another way, it does not allow for possibility that a person may find joy somewhere outside of the Church and its teachings, and (ii) that “goodness” can be reduced down to full activity in the Church.  Employing these definitions, I understand the speaker’s underlying message to be, so as long as a child is “good,” whether that “goodness” actually brings him or her “happiness” is beside the point.  In the NPR story, I see Family #2, with its emphasis on making the “right” choice in the hope that it will eventually bring “happiness,” as following that model of parenting.  By contrast, Family #1 followed a different model, whereby the child’s “happiness” was the foremost concern, regardless of any relationship to “goodness.” 

All of these muddled thoughts lead me back to the question of what is more important to me, my children’s “goodness” or their “happiness”?  Thankfully, my girls have no interest yet in boys, ditching school or really tough theological questions.  But that time is right around the corner.  Just like every parent, I ask myself how I would react if one of sweet girls came home and told me that (a) she didn’t believe in the Church any more, (b) she was a lesbian, or (c) she and her husband had decided not to have their children baptized.  Of course I would still love her unconditionally, but would I be able to accept these not “good” choices on the ground that they made by daughter happy?  

This is not an easy question, and my personal experiences lead me all over the map in trying to answer it.    I have several siblings who, over the years, have left the Church for various reasons.  Watching their personal trajectories since then, it is very clear that as they were less “good,” they were markedly less “happy.”  In that same vein, I have watched my new sister-in- law join the Church and drag my backsliding brother into the Church, decisions which have brought them much happiness.  These experience tends to validate my stake presidency member — “goodness” should the utmost priority.  On the other side of the coin, I also know folks who appear to be very happy and fulfilled people outside the Church.  One of my sisters, who left the Church after years of ridicule by her fellow Young Women, has finally reached a state of happiness, but has no intention of returning to the Church.  In this instance, “happiness” wins out over “goodness.”  For me, then, I want my daughters to be “good” — I want to see them married in the Temple and making choices that I agree with, etc.  At the same time, I think it is more imporatnt that they love themselves and find true “happiness.”  If I have a problem with their future choices, I’ll just have to live with it, I guess.

So, I ask you, fellow readers, what matters most to you and your significant other, your child’s “goodness” or his/her “happiness”?  And, if we were to ask your children about your priorities, what would they say?

Comments 32

  1. ‘Happy’ is the correct answer. ‘Good’ is nothing more then conforming to societies expectations.

    I have a child that through no choice of her own will never reach societies expectations. That she is happy is all that I can ask for. I also realize that is all I can hope for any of my kids.

  2. You suggest a very strong connection between “goodness” and church activity. I think we are generally happy when we feel like we are living according to our moral programming. Our view of what we “should” do may change over time, but if we aren’t doing what we “should”, we tend to be unhappy not only as a result of the natural consequences of our misbehaviour, but also due to our conscious or unconscious belief that we aren’t a good person.

    Some people are able to either adjust their programming or disconnect it from church activity. They either live by new programming (difficult to acheive) or live morally outside of the church. Happiness is completely possible in either case. Eternal life…..may be another question.

  3. This is not a hard question. Being good is better then being happy.

    Better to be good and miserable, then happy and wicked.

    We are to obey God. Anyone who places their personal pleasure above obedience to God has failed in their purpose of existence.

    Those who argue for happiness above obedience to God are those who are in the great and spacious building, mocking the sacrifices of the saints- and we know what happens to them.

  4. In many respects, I agree with Cicero – it is better to be good and miserable.

    It is a constant struggle for me to impress upon my children the right model and identify that which is truly good, as opposed to that which is acceptable to the people around them. I always think about Compton’s book: “In Sacred Loneliness”; a group of amazing women who lived the ‘good but miserable’ paradigm.

    It isn’t an easy answer. I guess the difficult part of the hard answer is the nitty gritty of what is good. That is the really tough question.

  5. Anyone (#3) who thinks this is an easy question, or that watching the consequences of one or the other, when they manifest themselves as mutually exclusive in an individual’s life, is kidding themselves. We should all want both for our kids, but that just won’t be possible for many.

    “Wickedness never was happiness” comes to mind, but that seems to be aspirational rather than an observed fact. But I agree with what has been said earlier, that it is largely a problem of definitions. If you think of good as “active in the Church”, I would pick happy, genuinely happy. If you think of good as not plundering and murdering others, but being a genuinely good person, I would pick good. But if my kids have to be happy in spite of not being “Church good” I want it to be the genuine happiness of friendship, and love for one’s fellow man, and not the cheap and counterfeit happiness of wallowing in sin.

  6. It’s really a dumb question, but it is a very “Mormon” question, so I get where your former counselor in the Stake Presidency is coming from. But if I had been sitting in that meeting I would have been just squirming in my seat with agitation.

    Kinds or types of “good” and “happy” are too numerous, and the definition too subjective… but let’s keep it simple:

    “Good” should be defined as being authentic, being in harmony with one’s true self/being and God/Universe, while maintaining balance/harmony with other souls in one’s greater community/society. Objectives of goodness are universal, including love, charity, hope, faith, repentance, forgiveness, frienship, etc.

    “Happiness” naturaly flows from such goodness. I do not think they are mutually exclusive, but always go hand in hand.

    Examples of being “good” but not “happy,” or “happy” but not “good” — i.e. unhappiness as result of lost job, or spouse, or wayward and unhappy child, etc. — is stepping outside of the boundaries of this example.

  7. I think I agree with Matt. Happiness comes from goodness. Plus I’m being heavily influenced by the Dalia Lama right now (reading “The Art of Happiness”) so anything I think about this is bent a little in that direction.

    As for the example from NPR, I don’t think a boy liking girls’ toys or dress or vice versa has anything to do with “goodness” but rather subjective cultural standards.

    A question I like is, is it better to have lots of “pleasure” or to be “good”. I posit that being good leads to happiness, but doing so often requires a sacrifice of pleasure. While pleasure often feels happy in the moment, it is more ephemeral, and sometimes potentially destructive.

  8. Matt said it; I can’t add anything to his comment other than a suggestion to re-read the Beatitudes. It’s a very simple, cause and effect answer to this question, imo. The trick is understanding the “good” referenced there.

  9. “Good” has to be something universal. If it is defined as allegiance to a specific community’s standards, it loses it’s currency. Good is not “abstaining from coffee: (LDS). Good is not “wearing a berkha” (Islam). Good is not “refraining from meat” (Hindu).

    BTW, can someone release a comment of mine on the bloated Gay Marriage thread that appears to have been hung up in moderation.

  10. When I read this, I was reminded of one of my favorite scriptures about ‘happiness’ that is found in Alma 27. This talks about the joy that Ammon felt when he was reunited with Alma:

    “Behold, this is joy which none receiveth save it be the truly penitent and humble seeker of happiness”

    I have used this as my mantra… to be a truly penitent and humble seeker of happiness. While I am still far from my goal, I take from this that it is OK to be a seeker of true happiness. This happiness is derived from an outward rather than in inward focus.

    On the other hand, being ‘good’ seems to connote to me that I am striving to meet the definition of ‘good’ prescrived by my circumstances and, therefore, carries more of an inward focus.

    In that context, I would first focus on the inner vessel (becoming good) but then focus on those around me (becoming happy).

    When we are able to lose ourselves in the service of others, we are able to become truly full of joy.

  11. Matt

    “Good” should be defined as being authentic, being in harmony with one’s true self/being and God/Universe, while maintaining balance/harmony with other souls in one’s greater community/society. Objectives of goodness are universal, including love, charity, hope, faith, repentance, forgiveness, frienship, etc.

    “Happiness” naturaly flows from such goodness. I do not think they are mutually exclusive, but always go hand in hand.

    This is beautiful. I would have been squirming in my seat as well.

  12. I think, a la #10, that this is a question that we can only really answer “easily” for ourselves. When someone else’s agency comes into play, the waters become muddied. I agree with Cicero (#3), as far as I am myself concerned; I do not know that I could lightly thrust that view on my children. Of course, there are definitional problems as well here…

  13. Well … I think that goodness will make you happy a lot more effectively than happiness will make your good.

    Since both are wtihout any equivocation desireable, I guess my answer is good.


  14. It is better to be “good,” but I would define goodness in ethical terms rather than religious ones. I want my children to be kind and fair and not destructive (to themselves or others). Obviously, I hope that goodness leads naturally to happiness, but it doesn’t always, necessarily. But it’s most important to me to raise children who grow up to be good people, people who make the world better.

  15. Being a kind and loving person is at the heart of my understanding of what it means to be “good.” We all know people who admirably abstain from this and that, or who unfailingly attend this or that Church meeting, yet somehow still seem to have missed the whole concept that being a warm, kind, loving person is at the heart of what it means to be “good” (at least according to Christ and Paul’s definitions).

    I believe if someone is “good,” i.e., kind and loving, then that person will be happy, simply because it is a natural, eternal law. Love and kindness begets happiness, both for the giver and the receiver.

    I want my children to be happy and good, and I think it’s a false dichotomy that the speaker presented. If your child is “good” by being loving and kind to everyone around him or her, how can he or she possibly not be happy?

  16. Happiness begets goodness. A happy child has more incentive to be good then an unhappy child. To fixate on a child being ‘good’ is to fixate on its behaviors. We believe if we rigidly control behavior then happiness will follow.

    This view is certainly understandable in an authoritarian society where leaders are much more interested in controlling behaviors. Happiness also gets equated with pleasure which is equated with sin. A happy person must not be giving their all to the controlling authority.

    I believe humans naturally want to do good. When they are happy (basic needs met) they are more able to do ‘good’.

  17. Whether it was originally written by Joseph Smith or Lehi, I know of no better summation of life than: “Men are that they might have joy.”

    I understand, and often agree, the point of many religionists that temporary pleasures can defeat our happiness. On the other hand, I think it’s quite unfortunate that so many faiths encourage misery during mortality, on the basis that it will be “worth it” in some future state of being. I refuse to believe that any benevolent deity would desire such a thing for humanity.

  18. “Adam fell that [humans] might be; [humans] are that they may have joy.”

    I do not see what the point of existence is if we are to be miserable, even if that existence meets some definition of “good.” I try to keep the commandments because when I do, I usually feel happier and more fulfilled than when I do not.

    Hands down, I would rather my children by happy and joyful than just “good”.

    In any event, if being “good” does not usually make us more happy and joyful, than I think we may have misperceived what “good” is.

    I think that is what earth life is about, learning from our own experiences what is “good” (and evil), and our own feelings are a large part of that measure. That is how addicts eventually recover, usually after first hitting bottom, and by recognizing that addictions provide only a temporary, counterfeit experience of “pleasure,” “rush”, “ecstasy”, or relief from pain, but invariably result in feelings of self-loathing and despair. The addictions cannot be good, the recovering addict concludes, because they result in despair, not happiness or joy.

  19. #18 – Amen, Nick. The highest joy might be impossible to understand without grasping somehow the lowest misery, but persistent misery is just miserable. I know of NO statement in our own religious tradition stating that being truly “good” will maintain misery.

    There is a distinction between “doing good things” and “being good” – a very important distinction that often gets overlooked or assumed in this type of discussion.

  20. This whole thing seems to be a chicken or the egg argument, as well as a false dichotomy, as Andrew already mentioned. You can either be happy or good? I think several people have hit upon the idea that they’re not mutually exclusive, but dependent upon the other. Good children are usually happy children, and happy children are usually good children. Certainly there are the exceptions like when a child has sociopathic tendencies and find pleasure in harming others.

    Furthermore, being good or happy are such subjective terms. Being good/moral/ethical varies from culture to culture as does the idea of happiness/fulfillment/joy. In fact, it could be further shrunk to an individual level. Some find fulfillment in misery and self-flagellation, while others find it in serving their fellow human being.

    But if I had to choose, I find Imperfection’s, Nick’s, and DavidH’s happiness argument a bit more compelling, just from personal experience. Having worked with kids for a decade, I’ve seen that the “happy” kids are often cooperative, compassionate, and friendly. The kids who come from homes where strict standards of “goodness” are often a bit more downtrodden, introverted, and reluctant. Then there is the other 80% who fall somewhere in between and the another 18% who are exceptions. 🙂

  21. Wickedness never was happiness. I think the question is really sort of weird because the way I see it, goodness IS happiness. The most craven hedonist eventually comes to realize that all pleasures pale besides following the commandments and becoming truly Christlike. That’s where joy is found. Church activity can be part of that if done right, but it’s neither necessary nor sufficient in itself.

  22. Being good is better then being happy.


    “Happiness” naturally flows from such goodness

    Susan M is right, pleasure is over rated. Lottery winners show a net of one year, start to finish, of improved happiness.

  23. When I was on my mission in Japan we learned a popular “kotowaza” or proverb, “Easy going or happiness is the path to pain and pain is the path to happiness”. For what it’s worth it is much better to be “good” than “happy”.

  24. Interestingly, we just watched a program on 20/20 about transgender kids. I was curious and looked at the CHI. You can be baptized after surgery (not sure if hormone therapy counts) but no Priesthood or temple recommend. And if you’re currently a member and have elective surgery you “might” have to face a Church council.

  25. I might be interjecting where I have no business here, but if you are willing to hear an adult transsexual’s experiences of gender identity conflict (I actually like the older term “Gender Dysphoria” because it describes the emotional state so well)

    Among adults who transition between genders there is a common pattern of a deep awareness of their gender issues at a very young age, combined with a huge amount of effort to bury how they felt and “fit in” to the expected gender role.

    Some cope with this duality better than others, and may get by for a very long time before the internal pressures force them to confront their gender issues. When that crisis point is reached, the gender issues must be addressed – whether that means the individual will transition or not is another story, but the issues must be dealt with openly and honestly. (You can run, but not hide, from yourself).

    What I am driving at here is that suppression as a management strategy simply does not work for those who are transsexual (and for whom it is not a childhood phase). Many transsexuals try it – often to ridiculous extremes – and ultimately it fails them.

    Where childhood diagnosis are concerned, there are some worrisome statistics out there. Namely that large numbers of those diagnosed with GID in childhood do not need to make a gender transition. (However the majority of those end up homosexual) However, if the therapists involved are using the WPATH Standards of Care as a guide, no surgical or chemical intervention would take place until the onset of puberty at the earliest. So for the most part you are seeing in the media portrayals of what would be called ‘social transition’ – the child is being socialized in the opposite gender, and some thorny decisions will have to be made later. (The long term outcomes for childhood transitions remains to be seen, as this is a relatively new phenomenon)

    Having lived the suppression experience myself, I fear that the second family in your example is setting themselves (and their child in particular) up for a very difficult, heart-wrenching experience.

    To be clear, from within, GID is NOT about “gender confusion” – trust me nothing in life is clearer or more persistent. The person with this condition understands ALL TOO WELL what their status is – the confusion (such as it is) arises in those around the individual.

  26. If read in the context of 2nd Nephi Chapter 2,

    “Man is that he might have joy”

    is exactly the same as saying:

    “Man is that he might have sorrow”


    Which is better, to be honest or mute? To be asleep or alive?

    I know folks mean well and try to be provocative while preparing lessons, but this isn’t a terribly edifying conversation to have.

    As for the second part…would you rather your children be “happy” or “good,” again it’s a false dichotomy. Just look at discipline. That is always a temporary sacrifice of some form of happiness (or perhaps just gratification) to serve some larger, better, more perfect goal. It’s only in moments that a choice is forced; over a larger stretch of time (eternity, say), there’s simply no friction.

  28. does goodness = happiness?
    man, Iam not sure. I think I have been good. I’ve done it all “right” in “the church” that is. Now I am married in the temple and have four kids. not sure I am happy. I suppose most parents want thier kids to be “good” regardless of wheather their happy. especially within the church. We belive that if your Children are “good”. It kind of gets you off the hook

  29. Yeah, furthermore, I think we are taught they go hand and hand. If your good (sacifice, temoprary unhappiness) you will eventually become happy. It hard to prove though.
    If more of the people I see at church who have been “good” those who have kept commandmands and maginfied thier callings; If i really belived any of them to be truly happy this would be an easier question for me.

  30. I think that it doesn’t really matter what is most important for the parents. I have a friend who knows her parents want her to be more ‘good’ than happy. In fact, at 19, she is still made to come to church, although she doesn’t feel particularly happy there.
    Also, my parents feel that it is more important for me to be happy, although I feel that even if I was having a miserable time of it, I would only be able to end up happy if I was regularly attending church.
    So, in my opinion, the question posed to your children shouldn’t be “what do you think is most important for me, for you to be happy, or good?”. Rather it should be “what is most improtant to YOU, happiness or goodness?”. Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to know that you’re child values ‘goodness’, rather than them just being consious of the fact that YOU value it?

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