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The Social Science of Raising Happy Kids

We wrote in Freakonomics about our views on parenting. Mostly, we were skeptical of how much parents could do to improve their kids’ futures. One can clearly be a terrible parent through neglect or abuse. The tougher question is whether being an “obsessive” parent who drags children to a never-ending procession of soccer practices, museums, and acting classes is better than just sitting on the couch watching Austin Powers with your kids.

One group of social scientists has devoted an enormous amount of effort to figuring out what makes kids happy. I have no idea if they’ve come up with the right answers, but they’ve put together a wealth of interesting materials for parents at the Greater Good Science Center. If you’d prefer something a little more academic, check out the science part of the Greater Good Web site.

Visiting the site got me thinking about what the goal of raising children should be. The Greater Good Center’s stated goal is to raise “happy and emotionally literate kids.” Those are laudable goals, but certainly not the only ones, or even the first ones that come to mind. I care most about raising kids who are happy and successful as adults, even if that happens to mean that they aren’t very happy as children. I want my kids to like me when they are grown up, but I also want them to do what I tell them to do, the first time I tell them to do it. I don’t want my kids to be sissies, the way I was — I want them to be tough, and able to take whatever criticism and misfortunes the real world has to offer. I also want them to be creative, and to take risks (but not too many risks).

I suspect that the folks who run the Greater Good Web site would disagree not only with what I am doing as a parent day to day, but even with the objectives I am trying to achieve. Nonetheless, there were a lot of things on the site with which I plan to experiment.

(Hat tip: Laura Beth Nielsen)