“MAKE ME HAPPY!!” he screamed from his bedroom. The four year old who was supposed to be going to sleep. The boy who was tucked in 30 minutes ago and was still not settling down. The son whose requests for water had been increasing in intensity. He finally had enough – his needs were not being met, he was unhappy, and he was looking to me to fix things.
With four years of parenting under my belt, and a history of nightly distraction tactics such as the water request, I was wise to his techniques. So I confidently ignored him at first. When this didn’t work, I gently reminded him that it was bed time, and there would be plenty of time in the morning to re-hydrate. I then returned to whatever it was that I was doing and waited again for the precious peace and silence of bedtime to arrive.
My mother-in-law was visiting with us at the time. She was a proud grandmother and had an intense love for her grandson. And, like most grandmothers, she had experienced enough child suffering as a mother (e.g. using the word no) and was determined to make up for it in her grandparent-hood. Now don’t get me wrong, I have a great relationship with my mother-in-law. But as a young father I understood this was a test of wills between the three of us. A test I intended to pass, thereby demonstrating my parenting bona fides. But this little boy was not cooperating with me. In fact he was deliberately undermining me, or so it felt.
After yet another reminder that it was bed time, this one a less gentle, this little gift of God had reached his limit. He summarized all the wisdom he had accumulated in his short four years of life into one visceral scream – “MAKE ME HAPPY!!” His demand blared through the monitor, and through the walls of the house, disrupting my peace and challenging my fatherhood to the core.
Of course, seasoned parent that I was, I did what you would expect. I roused myself from the comfort of the sofa, summoned all of my parenting wisdom, considered for a brief moment the audience of my mother-in-law ﾅ and completely snapped. I marched heavy footed to the bottom of the stairs, right below his bedroom, and yelled with all the authority and volume I could muster – “MAKE YOURSELF HAPPY!!”
To be honest, I really don’t remember what happened after that. I’m sure the boy eventually fell asleep. But I do remember a humbled father who discovered that he wasn’t the expert father he had thought; the embarrassed dad who realized he had just made a mistake. Of course, pride was swallowed, apologies were given, and the grace found in loving relationships proved a healing salve once again.
Looking back on this now, I can laugh at it all and reflect on what was really being communicated that night. You see the boy had assumed it was the job of his parents to make him happy. Child development psychology could more accurately explain the why’s, but it was probably an inevitable conclusion at this stage of development in an average child’s life. My communication method was obviously less than ideal, but what I wanted my son to know is that I cannot be responsible for his happiness. His provision? Yes. Upbringing? Check. Loving him deeply? Absolutely. But happiness? Sorry, no can do.
Don’t misunderstand me. I wish the best for my children just like the next dad. But I want them to know that happiness is not a right; that it is often elusive; and that it can be especially fleeting when we depend on others to provide it. The conversation we started that night, albeit unknowingly, was that happiness is not the goal in life. The real goal is to pursue the joy found in discovering your identity and purpose through a relationship with God. This is what the four year-old was really screaming for. This is what I really wanted him to know. This is what I’ve been impressing on him ever since.
I am grateful for situations like this in life, where truth emerges from the mistakes of life. I am grateful for a patient heavenly father, willing to work with a selfish and insecure young man like me. And I am grateful for the chance to be a father and for the wisdom and ability to pass on to my children the things that really matter.