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?