Nobles Parents' E-Newsletter

November 2017

Nobles Parents' E-Newsletter November 2017

"I Just Want You to Be Happy" by Head of Upper School Michael Denning

During a recent visit, one of my friends told me about a “swear jar” he had placed in his kitchen and into which he and his family make monetary contributions when they use inappropriate language. The father of four adolescents, my friend tries to be a good role model and he uses this symbolic, public consequence as a means to set expectations concerning behavior, maintain norms of civility and acknowledge mistakes. Indeed, for his family members, this receptacle serves as an important reminder that they need to think about the impact of their words before they say them. Emily and I are considering installing a similar type of jar in our kitchen, but instead of serving as a repository for fines for foul language, this collection device would be for every time we suggest to our son that we “just want him to be happy.

This phrase—“I just want you to be happy”—rolls off the tongues of many of us with an ease, naturalness, and certainty that would suggest that it is one of the most profound of truths. Of course we want our children to smile often and to experience the euphoria that comes with feeling happy. I suspect that we would also all agree that we don’t want our children to be chronically unhappy. But who among us has gone through life in a perpetual state of happiness? Moreover, can we even experience moments of happiness without having moments of challenge, difficulty, and failure—unhappiness—to which we can compare these? Perhaps most importantly, do we know what we are communicating when we use the term happiness with our children?

  • Do we ever define what we mean by happiness?
  • Do we discuss what elements make up a “happy” life?
  • Do we consider what our students may actually hear and internalize when we say, “I just want you to be happy”?
  • Do we think through the expectations we may be placing upon our children when we tell them, “I just want you to be happy”?

Considered in these contexts, when we say “I just want you to be happy” could we be telling our children that they are disappointing us when they are not happy?

The end of the first quarter and fall afternoon-program seasons are upon us, and if we educators are caring for, nurturing, and teaching our students well, we will be providing thorough feedback on their progress across our programs. Much of this feedback will be encouraging and should speak to the respect and affection we have for our students as well as our appreciation for what they have given of themselves and persevered through during this demanding first quarter. But some of the feedback should be challenging and difficult to hear and cause our students moments of frustration, disappointment, and, indeed, unhappiness.

While not enjoyable, these periods of temporary unhappiness are extremely important to the development of not only analytical and problem solving skills, but also resilience, self-advocacy, and perseverance, and it is here that we parents have to step up and do our part. While it may be tempting for us to try to problem solve for our children, we need to try to do so with them. As we talk with our children, we need to consider:

  • Giving their teachers, advisors, coaches, and directors the benefit of the doubt whenever possible.
  • Urging our students not to dismiss criticism or blame others for their results; blaming others can become a habit that, in the long run, could greatly impede intellectual and emotional growth.
  • Insisting that our children engage with their teachers’ feedback until they understand as well as possible what is being communicated.
  • Encouraging our children to take full advantage of all the supports available at Nobles—from their teachers, advisors and deans as well as the Academic Support Office, the Counseling Office, and the Peer Help Program.
  • Engaging our children in a discussion about the importance of steady improvement; one’s education is a marathon and not a sprint.
  • Discussing with our children what they can and cannot control today, and helping them to learn to tell the difference between the two. (Niebuhr, 1926)
  • Being clear and honest about our expectations, with ourselves and our children, and focusing more on the inputs and processes and less on the outcomes.
  • Emphasizing the primacy of effort, curiosity, determination, self-advocacy, and enthusiasm.

While most of us endeavor to offer our children unconditional love, our kids don’t always experience us in this way. For worse (and often for better), our relationship with our kids is inextricably linked to our hopes and expectations, and they feel this regularly. So for our kids’ health and wellness, let’s make sure that our hopes are fair and reasonable, and that our expectations are, too.

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If you have questions, comments or suggestions for this newsletter, email Kim Neal at