This piece originally appeared in the June 2018 ‘Bucket List’ issue of Fernie Fix Magazine.
What are all the things I want to do/see/experience before I die? This is the proverbial bucket list. Making such a list is an opportunity to reflect on what would feel like ‘a life well lived’ when we reach the finish line. You might ask yourself, ‘what do I really hope to accomplish? What are the things that will bring me a sense of sincere satisfaction when it’s all over?’
If we were to consider bucket lists that parents make, a lot of them would probably include specific holidays or trips with the kids, or special family events and activities. But in all honesty, people with kids will tell you the most important thing in life is their children’s happiness.
Why is this the popular aspiration on our parenting bucket lists? It’s partly because we want reassurance that we’ve done a good job. It would be great to get some kind of validation that we succeeded as a mom or dad because nobody is going to give us a report card or medal for the hard work of raising humans.
However, it doesn’t take parents long to figure out it is impossible to make our young ones feel happy. The bigger they get the more chances we have to watch them experience disappointment and heartbreak. Though we try our best, we can’t even keep them physically out of harms way at all times. To a very large degree (larger than it feels comfortable to acknowledge) we do not have the power to determine our kids’ level of contentment or well-being. Yet that is truly our desire.
It doesn’t make sense to use changeable states in our children that are out of our control as indicators of our proficiency at life or parenting. It’s like having ‘get abducted by aliens’ as a bucket list item – you just can’t make it happen!
Do you know what we can actually influence? The closeness and connection we have with our kids. We can work on deepening our relationships with them and learn to grow in our ability to be emotionally connected. Research tells us that the number one measure of how good our lives are is the quality of our human relationships.
We can do this by letting ourselves be more authentic and more empathetic, which will lead to becoming increasingly trustworthy. Be real with them and care about their lives. This allows our kids to feel closer to us.
The most important thing to do to connect and build this closeness with your kids is to make yourself a person that feels emotionally safe. Be relaxed, aware and present, and interested in them. Does your teenager lie to you? S/he probably doesn’t feel like there is enough emotional safety in your relationship to tell the truth. Do your kids share both the highlights and the defeats of their day with you? This is a sign that they feel emotionally safe.
You are going to work for years on building a close relationship with your kid(s) and yet you won’t be visibly closer to finishing that project anytime soon. In one moment you might feel like you’re winning and in the next you might make a mistake. We all do.
I think another reason why parents rank their children’s happiness as a high priority is because having purpose and making meaningful contributions really leads to a fulfilling life. Typical bucket list items like, ‘camp under the northern lights’ or ‘fly in a hot air balloon’ won’t cut it when the end is near and we look back on what mattered. Our hearts know the difference.
We live in a culture that values external measurement. We get marked and compared from our earliest days, and learn to judge our efforts by the way others view them. It can be hard to decide for ourselves if we feel pleased with our accomplishments since we are used to the outside world deciding for us.
Remember that it’s the meaningful purpose and relationship parts that lead to a sense of a life well lived. Focus on the journey of moving yourself towards more closeness; the outcome – our children’s ultimate happiness or lack thereof – is a wild card.