“Happy” kids or “productive” kids? The question is flawed.

“I just want my child to be happy, to have fun, whatever that means to them. My job is to facilitate their happiness, not make them live according to the arbitrary ‘rules’ of society.”

“I’m not here to make my kid happy. It’s my job to make sure they grow up to be good, productive citizens, with strong work ethics, who can function in society; ‘fun’ isn’t a part of parenting.”

Neither of these radical (but not exaggerated) parenting mission statements sit very well with me.

In the first we have a lack of recognition of the human as a social animal — which we very much are — and of how much joy is to be found living harmoniously with our tribe. There’s a reason “anti-conformists” and “non-conformists” tend to seek out and create groups of like-minded people: it is excruciatingly painful for most of us to be completely out of touch with everyone around us — we can survive and enjoy small or even large differences if we also have commonalities; without any way to connect with those around us, without any similarities, most of us wither and withdraw. Because humans are, at base, conformists, even when what we conform to is out of the mainstream. So stop talking to me about “sheeple” and deriding people with whom you disagree for “caring what other people think”. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to get along with your community, and so much happiness to be found there.

Whereas in the second has a lack of recognition of the child as an individual and of how pointless a life without joy is. The more complex an animal’s neurology is — eg apes (such as us), dolphins, elephants, even dogs and cats and rats and really all mammals — the more there is the capacity for and the need for play. We live to play. We live for joy. We live, frankly, to be selfish and to strive for our own highest happiness. If we forget that “productivity” and “work ethic” and “functioning in society” are simply grease for our own joy — not necessarily passing pleasure, though that as well, but also the deep and rewarding satisfaction of creation and contribution and of the struggle itself — we forget our own nature as human animals, as great apes, as bearers of the most complex neurology on the planet1. “Fun” (in the sense of joy and play) is not the antithesis of work, but rather, properly, its companion.

I am bipolar. Most of my life, starting no later than a few years into puberty, I have experienced either depression or mixed states (the most unholy and hellish combination of mania and depression — think of it as “high energy self-hatred”). I have, therefore, a deep and abiding commitment to making sure my children are capable of — have all the tools needed for — experiencing happiness, because it has so often been entirely out of my reach. One of the key diagnostic criteria for depression is an inability to experience joy or pleasure: why would I want to teach my children life is supposed to be that way? Why would I want to tell them that joy and pleasure are optional, only accessible to them if they have time to squeeze it in between eating foods they hate I’ve decided they must eat and going to bed at the time I have set for them?2 I don’t. I want them to know that joy and happiness and the ability to experience pleasure is their birthright, and that something is very, very wrong if they are being told they must sacrifice these to be deemed “good people”.

And I’ve spent most of my adult life, because of my mood disorder, utterly unable to be “productive”. I have not had a “real job” in nearly a decade, and that one I was fired from and had to lie my way back into (because “I was sick with mental illness” is not an explanation many employers will take kindly to). I spent years where all I did was wake whenever, watch as much TV as I chose, go out whenever the fancy struck me, with nearly no obligations or responsibilities of any kind. And it was unbearably awful. Not just because I was highly mood unstable at the time, but because humans are not meant for idleness. Yes, we all dream of being retired, free to do as we wish — but not for nothing does the image of the happy retiree often include boat building or grandparenting or copious cardigan knitting. The only reason we think we want to do “nothing” is because we are taught from childhood that “fun” and “productive” are mutually exclusive, and we have to quit the one if we are to have any of the other. I want to teach my children to expand what we consider “productive” beyond that which fuels the capitalist machine and to help them reject our culture’s valuing of persons based on how much one is able to participate in the consumerist cycle. But I also want them to never forget3 that contributing to their community is inherently a worthy, fulfilling pursuit. Because being unable to — if, for instance, the combination of one’s ability and society’s expectations are incompatible — is no fun at all.

What I want — for my children, for myself, for all of us — is autonomy and community, productivity and pleasure, selfishness and selflessness. I want us to stop thinking of these as opposites, as incompatible, as mutually exclusive, as somehow separate each from the others. I want for my children, for myself, for you, to find the joy in struggling to balance each part in its turn, and to embrace our inability to ever quite manage it. I want a parenting statement that doesn’t fit well into a pithy, smug, superior-sounding quote. I want all of the above. I want to stop us thinking in “or”. I want yes. I want nuance and complexity and a definition of joy that doesn’t exclude hard work and tears and defeats. I want more.

What do you want?


  1. That we know of.
  2. Which is not to say eating a variety of foods and getting sufficient sleep is unimportant or any parent who places value on these is in the wrong; what I am critiquing is the power dynamic of decrees-from-on-high these topics are so often framed as.
  3. Because I believe children, social creatures that they are, are born knowing this.
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23 Responses to “Happy” kids or “productive” kids? The question is flawed.

  1. Yep yep yep yep yep yep yep and yep.

    That is all, and I know it’s a bit of a non-comment. Just wanted to say how much I agree – I spent the whole thing nodding like one of those toy dogs in the back of cars… Thankyou for writing it!

  2. I’m with Piana. This is *exactly* what drives me. I know isolation. I know brain-crushing idleness. I know the bleak pit of depression. I will do anything and everything in my power to ensure my daughter (and any future siblings) only ever experiences these things in passing – if at all – and has the necessary tools to cope with them effectively.

    Thank you for speaking my mind yet again. :)

  3. BiPolar Elder


    Being happy and being productive are in no way contradictory. They are different (duh) and some people (sigh) think one has to choose. The truth is more complicated. Unless born into a ‘silver spoon’ family, one eventually must discover some method of survival, the best of which are ways of being productive.

    But why rush matters? Humans take decades to grow up, and while growing the main task is learning. Which is what children do most and best when playing and being happy.

    I got lucky. It happens that one of the ways I was happiest is when having to think mathematically (weird, huh?) and that opened up many ways to be happily productive.

    @Arwyn I hope you and your offspring can be happy. I know your writing is not earning you riches, but it looks very productive to your followers. And by the measure of producing something people want it IS.

    BTW, another belated congratulations on your recent accomplishment.

  4. I was reading the first paragraph and thinking I knew where you were going with this, because my mission statement would go something like “My job is to make sure my child is happy, and part of that is making sure he doesn’t fall too badly foul of society’s rules”. Then I read on, and found you were saying something much deeper and more meaningful, but hugely true.

    The part about idleness reminded me of a horrendous course for unemployed people I was on a while back. The participants were invited to come up with downsides to being unemployed, and several of them said that it made you lazy and unmotivated and you never did anything. And I was like wait, that doesn’t describe my unemployed life at all. I’d been renovating my house and caring for my child, and my biggest worry about looking for work was that I would no longer have time to fit everything in that I cared about doing. Definitely an assumption that only paid work is meaningful going on there.

  5. This is what I want to give my child:
    the capacity for joy
    the resilience she’ll need to face the inevitable sorrows
    the strength to speak up for herself and others
    the empathy to connect with others and their struggles
    the confidence to withstand the judgments of others
    the humility to admit to and learn from her mistakes
    an endless capacity for love and grace

  6. What do I want for my child?

    I want to support him in becoming his best self, whatever that may be. I hesitate to say so, though, because it sounds so much like “I want him to be productive blah blah.” So I have to think more about what I mean by “best self,” or come up with a different way of saying it. Because it certainly doesn’t preclude (for example) screwing up, or feeling sad or angry, or needing rest or to goof off and so on….

    And what you say about joy: yes. I’m striving to learn to be joyful, even in the midst of struggle. There’s been a lot of struggle, lately…..

    • OK, better word: true, not best. Also, I want him to be open to others, open to experience, willing and able to learn.

      It’s all I want for myself, too.

  7. This was a beautiful post, Arwyn! As I contemplate retirement, I know that idleness is not what I want. I’ve said recently that I plan to sleep for my first month of retirement, acknowledging that I do want more idleness than I now have, but also that it cannot consume the rest of my life. My life is full of things I wish I had more time for, things I plan to do when I no longer work for pay. Pay is not the best or the only measure of productivity.

    And what you said about community: Yes, Yes, YES! Finding others like me in some way, different from the mainstream society, was so very important. It still is.

  8. I want to raise my child to be equipped with the tools needed to live a well-rounded life.

    That statement alone guarantees I will not succeed at perfection. How could I possibly anticipate every skill he may need? All I can do is try. Try to teach him how to find his own happiness without neglecting the happiness of serving others. Try to teach him how to survive in a kyrarchy without reinforcing the power structures. Try to teach him how to trust and accept himself without blinding him to privilege.

  9. Um. Your last paragraph is what I want.

    re footnote 3: YES!! This is why Lina follows me around when I do housework, protesting loudly that she wants to help, and is disappointed when I have to tell her that she’s not “tall enough” to help. (In reality, I’m neither creative nor patient enough to figure out ways she can help with most things.)

  10. This is so awesome, Arwyn. Really. I believe this with my whole being, but came at it from a different perspective. I don’t have a mood disorder, but both my parents have struggled with mental illnesses and personality disorders, therefore growing up I was taught that happiness was tied to THEM and their feelings and emotions. I wasn’t allowed happiness on my own terms. It was incredibly confusing and I honestly didn’t know what happy felt like until I was an adult and out from under their influence.

    That’s just one piece of it.

    Of course there’s so much more to life than just pursuing happiness as you’ve so eloquently outlined with this: “autonomy and community, productivity and pleasure, selfishness and selflessness.” We are all of those things and we as parents need to make these ideals the goal of our teachings; balance and acceptance interwoven into all sides of a life, a young child’s life is the best gift, the best tool, we can ever give them.

  11. In his book “Authentic Happiness” Martin Seligman draws a distinction between pleasure or simply ‘feeling good’ and authentic happiness which he says comes from various factors including knowing and building on your strengths, doing the things that truly absorb you (flow), having a sense of meaning or purpose, and being resilient in the face of hardship. If this is what happiness is then yes, that is what I want for my kid.

  12. “I spent years where all I did was wake whenever, watch as much TV as I chose, go out whenever the fancy struck me, with nearly no obligations or responsibilities of any kind…”

    Oh my God! With the exception of raising my toddler, which I try to do very well, I am totally in this state. How did you muster up the energy to get out of it?

    Amazing post, as usual. Your work just keeps getting better and better.

    • Cassandra — Well, it helped that I hated it. That time was after I had dropped out of college for the umpteenth (and last, please dear gods) time, and shifted to just focusing on gaining stability. And it was hard. Really effing hard. But I knew I wanted to get away from the town we were living in (for one thing, my partner couldn’t find employment there), I knew I wanted much, much more out of my life, and I was incredibly privileged to have a ton of support — from my parents, both financially and emotionally, from my partner, from some amazing professionals — and the resources to work on my mental/emotional health until I was well enough to move back across the country to someplace where finally things started clicking for us. (The Man got a job, I got pregnant and then got work and then started school and started writing, we moved into a huge and supportive community, etc.) Not that it got easy, but life became, mostly, more than just surviving the day any way possible. But holy hell was it hard to get here. Worth it, most days. But it took a lot of really hard work, as well as luck and privilege.

  13. My heart just swells upon reading that last paragraph (and really, upon reading this entire post). YES. Yes, that, precisely. I want my children to reside in those very nuances and complexities and not feel like they need to obscure one prong of the “autonomy and community, productivity and pleasure, selfishness and selflessness” dichotomies in order to find joy. And, of course, I want them to find that joy.

    Dissertator that I am, I should also add that I am totally geeking out over the similarity between what you’ve written here and Simone de Beauvoir’s The Ethics of Ambiguity (my dissertation topic). The human situation is, she argues, ambiguous (in a way that is damn near exactly what you’ve written here), and acknowledging this ambiguity and integrating it into the way that one approaches the world is crucial to leading a [fill-in-the-blank for whichever way you'd like to describe a moral life/ethical life/life of human flourishing/etc.].

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  15. Your thoughts reminded me of a this:


    She quotes a book I’ve never read about a third of the way into the post about creating something today that will outlast this moment. Finding joy in productivity however simple, fighting stagnancy (as a stay at home parent I struggle with this a lot) all the while refusing to let my life become incongruent with my beliefs. That’s what I want for my children and what I hope I am showing them.

  16. I want to give this post a resounding AMEN. That’s what I want. :)

  17. You are painfully brilliant.

  18. A phrase I picked up from another friend is “Embrace the power of AND!” It’s originally talking about gender identity and presentation, but after reading your post, I realize that it’s far more applicable.

    So often we think of things as mutually exclusive, when they’re really not. I’d argue that in some cases, kyriarchy wants us to think that way – you can’t be a good drone without thinking that pleasure and productivity are mutually exclusive, and then where would all of those poor capitalist overlords be? But you’re spot on – being productive in a meaningful way is in itself joyful. And we need both – we need the “and”, the grey areas, rather than the black and white of “productive” or “playful”.

    I am definitely working on embracing AND in my life – and it’s definitely something I want for my kids. Categories are useful and fun, until they’re too restricting. And the rules that say so many of them are mutually exclusive are pretty much crap :D

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