Why I Don’t Want My Children to Be Happy


I came to Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and its controversy late. Even though I never had parents who hit me or called me garbage, I could relate to a lot of what Amy Chua had to say. Like Amy Chua, my parent’s held an unfailing belief that I would succeed. The more I read, the more it seemed that her detractors were mainly critical of her certainty, more than anything else. This, I feel, is the core of the debate between Eastern and Western parenting styles.
When I first went to high school in the U.K., I would ask my friends what they thought they were going to do when we finished. Many of them were not sure and a lot were going to take a gap year between school and university to discover themselves. I even remember my friend’s mother saying that she didn’t expect my friend (then aged 17) to know what she wanted to do with the rest of her life. I was flummoxed. This was not the case in Kenya.
Even now (aged four) my daughter will happily tell you that she wants to be a pilot and a doctor so that she can fly to treat people who need help. My many years in the U.K. mean that I am much more open to the idea that she may well turn out to be something else (she also wants to be a ballerina), but if you had asked me as a teenager, I would have been firm in the understanding that of course she would know.
African parenting assumes a belief in your children that allows no room for doubt. It was not until I went to the U.K. that I realized that my father had a somewhat different grading system: grade C was failing, B passing and an A to be obtained. Yet, on occasions I got anything less than a B, he never made me feel small. He may have stepped up the tutoring and encouraged me to put in extra hours of studying, but it always felt supportive. He simply believed I could do better and so I would. Even when I was in university, he would study all the core texts that I was using so that we could discuss them together. He always had time to follow what I was learning so that he could help me when I struggled. It made me feel special that he took such an interest.
I find myself replicating this certainty. Although my U.K. mind tells me that there is pressure in my conviction that my daughter will behave appropriately, learn the right things and indeed go on to excel, my Kenyan mind has confidence that if she gives her best then contentment will follow. Contentment seems a lot more realistic and sustainable to my Kenyan mind than the ephemeral happiness that people in the West seem to be in great pursuit of these days.
I hear all the time, “I don’t care what s/he does as long as s/he is happy.” But I don’t really believe that. The people who state that would certainly be challenged if their children declared that their sole ambition in life was to collect other people’s rubbish for a living. In the African context, happiness is tied up with a lot more than individual will. We all have goals for our children and I don’t think that is a bad thing. If we are open and honest about our goals and have some faith in the belief that they can be attained, perhaps then, we can all be a little more content—whatever the outcome.


  1. Happiness is relative and a state that is in constant flux. You can’t feel happiness if you don’t feel sorrow and a whole other range of emotions. It’s funny that you wrote the line about people who just want to see their kid happy but you say I bet the wouldn’t feel that way if their kid ended up collecting other people’s rubbish. (I am paraphrasing so apologies if not exactly right). When I had my first daughter that’s exactly what I told people. I’d rather she collect trash and be happy though by happy I meant overall satisfied with her life then be some super high achiever who suffers from stress and all the associated illness that tag along. But then I grew up with a bi-polar brother and have seen first hand close friends whose depression has driven them to both attempted and successful suicides so I am sure that plays a big part in the way I feel about it.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’d much rather my daughter not collect trash. I have friends whom I envy because they’ve always known what they wanted to do with their lives. I also know many others who, like me, are still trying to figure that out even with gap years abroad and like. That said, if I were still in England where schools force children to specialize at what I perceive to be a ridiculously young age, you can be sure I’d tell my kids to hold off rushing into any decisions but spend some time exploring the world. I also come from a country where a college education can put you in debt for a lifetime so I think it makes sense to chose wisely and not rush into anything.

    In truth, I think we agree more than disagree in wanting our children to be content. I too read Amy Chua’s book and the funny thing is that I do believe in pushing children at times because I believe that can help them. That said, I didn’t get the feeling that Amy held an unfailing belief that her children would succeed only that they could and I think the difference in words may be subtle but actually can have a big impact on how one treats children -like hurling abuse which I find in-excusable.

    And if my daughter does decide to collect rubbish, I hope she excels at it because honest hard work is good work no matter what the job.

  2. Beautiful piece. I make a point of not discussing my children’s shortcomings with others, and generally expect them to be good kids, and they are. I don’t believe I’m projecting or pressuring them at all, just seeing the goodness in them. I try also to nourish and cultivate that – rather than fear for all the wrong that could happen. We all have the potential for confidence and excellence, or deterioration and destruction in us. I wish to be the one that sees the good. People don’t always like that. They tell me my children are perfect, or that I think they are. Not so. They are people like anyone else. But then other’s people’s kids are never as bad as they often like to make them out to be, for more than a moment or two.

  3. Such a title! Its true though our western idea of happiness is very superficial, who even knows what will make oneself happy? I often think my father wouldbe proud of me, not because i have achived greatness but because i feel internally content with who i grew up to be and who he raised, as well he was very stressed and seemingly happy, but was his happiness something his parents taught, no. I think the western culture is crazy over its obssesion with happiness. You are right, its about sooo much more than the indivdual. Cheers


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