This morning when I dropped Jonah off, he told me that he doesn’t like school. It was the first time this year that I can recall him having said so, and it made me sad. He’s had a surprisingly positive experience in kindergarten so far (and I say “surprisingly” only because I had my doubts about the worksheet- and testing-centric culture of today’s public schools). I asked him what he didn’t like and he told me that it’s too hard (which is also surprising, since he’s whizzing through everything they’re teaching). I assured him that he’s doing great in school and that he can do hard things, which is when he took a turn for the existential and told me that most of the time he can’t find anything fun to do. I inquired as to whether we were still talking about school, but no, now he was talking about life in general.
I reminded him of some of the things I’ve watched him do recently that he was clearly enjoying tremendously: building with Legos, for instance. He claimed that even those activities aren’t “fun enough,” and told me that most of the time he’s bored. I had such a mix of emotions in these couple of minutes: disappointment, frustration at his grumpiness, sadness that he truly feels this way, and naturally I shifted into the mode that drives Kristin crazy in moments like this: fix-it mode. I tried to talk him out of this perspective because it worried me to think that he might live there, permanently convinced that life is boring and unfulfilling most of the time. It felt equally worrisome that he might expect life to be a constant stream of joy and entertainment.
“Life isn’t really about being happy all of the time,” I said. “You try to find things that you enjoy doing, and you also find moments that make you happy, but you don’t really feel happy all day long. And sometimes there are things we have to do in life that we don’t want to do. I don’t love going to work, but I do it because I need to so that we can have money for our family, and I don’t love doing dishes or laundry but I like living in a clean house, so cleaning is something that I do because it’s nice to live in a clean house.”
I was not winning at this; not even close. My response felt even more dismal than his statements. I gave up and asked him to put on his coat for the sixth time so that we could exit the minivan and walk across the street to his school.
All day I’ve been thinking about this. How do we raise children who know how to find joy in an ordinary life? I’ve read plenty of theories about “kids today” and how entitled and over scheduled and over directed their lives are, how they don’t have enough autonomy or freedom to make mistakes, and that might all be true. And sure, our kids have a very privileged life, but I don’t see them as over scheduled and we don’t make a great effort to entertain them (intentionally). They each have one “extracurricular” activity: gymnastics, because we like them to do something active that promotes balance and coordination, but that’s it. They actually spend a great deal of time playing together, just the three of them, without a lot of play dates or field trips to expensive activities, and they have a lot of control over how they spend their down time, and they’re pretty good at coming up with things to do.
I also recognize that kids are human, and they’re just as likely to have a bad day or even just a bad morning as any other human. Maybe Jonah just woke up in a funk and this wasn’t an existential crisis that called for panic and a parenting intervention. Or maybe Jonah is finally having the realization that school in this country is kind of awful and sucks all of the imagination and creativity out of you, and maybe that was bound to happen and it just seemed to bleed over into life for him this morning.
I don’t really know, and I probably never will. All I know is that I want to raise kids who are well equipped to find things in their lives that bring them joy, to have realistic expectations about how joy shows up in an ordinary life, and to understand that while some parts of life may not feel joyful in the moment, the result can lead to some sense of joy or satisfaction and those things are worth doing too. A full life is made up of many things, and just because you don’t feel happy every moment doesn’t mean that you’re doing it wrong or that you don’t have enough. And sure, if it’s possible to make a change and find more joy sometimes change is called for, sometimes big change, and I want them to have the courage and conviction to be able to do that too.
My life is so ordinary and yet it’s so satisfying. I’m about to turn 40 and I have absolutely zero regrets about where I am in my life. I feel a huge sense of gratitude for this ordinary life that I get to live, even when I feel “meh” about my job or about housework or figuring out what to make for dinner. If I’m being honest though, it took a long time to get here. Some of my fears about Jonah’s statements have to do with the fact that I think I felt that way a lot when I was younger. It took me ages to find hobbies that I love and to settle into a life that felt like exactly where I was meant to be. I hate the thought of any of my kids having to wrestle with those feelings for years and years before finding their way, but maybe that’s just one of the many hardships of raising children: watching them struggle and knowing that it’s a struggle you can’t fix.
Still, I wish that I knew *some* of the answers. I want to know some of the right things to say and some of the right things to model to show them that there is joy to be found, that life won’t entertain them every moment, and that it is still so very worth living.