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Childrens' Happiness

Kate McReynolds

Kate McReynolds is the Associate Editor of Encounter. She has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from The City University of New York and works with parents, teachers, and children in New York City.

I believe that every human being has an innate desire for happiness and does not want to suffer. I also believe that the very purpose of life is to experience this happiness.
The Dalai Lama (2001)

I first began thinking about children’s happiness many years ago when I worked at a residential treatment center for emotionally disturbed children. Many of the 24 youngsters who lived at the center had been physically or sexually abused. Some had been neglected. Still others had lived in unimaginably shocking conditions. I was baffled and deeply troubled by the harm that parents could inflict on their children. But I was also deeply touched by the children’s capacity for happiness. They were resilient and when cared for, they often flourished. It was these children, whose names and faces I still remember, who led me to choose a career in child clinical psychology.

Many years and textbooks later, the numbers of abused, traumatized, and mistreated children with whom I have worked no longer surprise me. Nor am I puzzled anymore by the fact that parents could harm their own children. Most of the mothers and fathers with whom I have worked have been victims of child abuse when they were young. Many were struggling with extreme poverty, poor education, and other difficulties that made it possible to feel compassion for them, without which the work was impossible.

Of course, not every child that comes to a clinic has suffered abuse or trauma; in fact, some do not have any mental disorder whatsoever. I have been asked, for example, to evaluate youngsters who were showing signs of emotional disturbance, but whom I determined were merely unhappy. I say “merely” to emphasize the distinction between the psychologically healthy but unhappy child, and those children who have a genuine illness or disorder. In my early years as a child psychologist I was pleased when I could report to parents and to teachers that a child, though unhappy, was not ill. Promoting happiness, after all, seemed easier than treating mental illness or helping a child recover from trauma. But promoting children’s happiness has turned out to be quite difficult, a fact that has proven even more puzzling to me than child abuse.

Hard to Face

Early in my clinical work I noticed that many people, even experienced child psychologists, have trouble looking squarely at the unhappiness of children. By that I mean pondering it fully, until the deepest understanding of what a child is experiencing is achieved. I first became aware of the difficulty when I was a graduate student. As part of a seminar in child assessment I was assigned the task of evaluating a 5-year-old boy whose foster parents were worried because he liked to dress in girls’ clothing and play with dolls. I learned that when this boy was three years old, he witnessed his mother’s murder. For a year he lived with his grandmother and aunt. During this time his grandmother’s legs were amputated due to complications from diabetes, and his aunt, a drug addict, regularly took him to crack houses where he witnessed her exchange sex for drugs. Prior to entering foster care, he escaped a fire in his apartment and stood on the street watching his building burn, knowing that some people inside had burned to death. He had been physically abused and there was a strong suspicion of sexual abuse as well.

I was surprised when, at the case conference, my fellow trainees and our supervisor discussed only the gender-related aspects of the case. I tried, again and again, to direct attention to the horrific traumas this child had endured, to bring his unthinkable suffering to light. I told my colleagues that I had come to understand how much this boy missed his mother, how painfully he longed for a loving and tender connection with a trustworthy mother figure. In the end, my supervisor overturned my recommendation that treatment focus on helping the child work through his traumatic losses and abuse. He was diagnosed with gender identity disorder, and treatment was to be geared toward helping him learn appropriate gender behavior. It seemed this boy’s suffering was, in fact, unthinkable.

For a while, I thought that the difficulty some people have looking at children’s unhappiness was limited to extreme unhappiness of the sort I just described. It takes real fortitude to listen, week after week, without shutting down or detaching, as a child describes the moment his mother’s throat was cut, or recalls with terror watching her father kill rats in the apartment by impaling them on a board hammered through with a nail. But eventually I saw that carefully considering even the ordinary unhappiness of children is difficult for many people.

By ordinary unhappiness, I mean the kind of misery that well-loved, well-cared-for children sometimes feel. In other words, it is not triggered by trauma, abuse, or neglect. When a child’s ordinary unhappiness becomes chronic and pervasive, he or she is often referred to the clinic. Happiness can be restored, especially in young children, depending on the willingness of those concerned to do what is needed to help. But left untreated, both extreme and ordinary unhappiness can solidify into entrenched emotional disturbance.

School-Related Unhappiness

A recent (2007) United Nations survey of 21 industrialized nations asked young people if they like school. Seventy-eight percent of U.S. children said they do not. What’s more, a recent Associated Press/MTV survey (Noveck & Thompson 2007a) reports that school is the most common source of stress among 12- to 17-year-olds. These findings correspond to my own professional experience. By far, the common cause of ordinary unhappiness among all the children I have treated has been school. I have found this to be true outside the clinic as well. In my own work with students at an urban college, as a consultant to educators in the New York City school system, and as the mother of two school-age children. Because school-related unhappiness is so much less dramatic than the experience of violent trauma, it took me a long time to understand the serious nature of the problem, a problem that seems to be viewed as a necessary by-product of modern life.

The first time I had the pleasure of reporting to parents that the only problem their child had was that he had started kindergarten too early, my own children were just finishing elementary school at a child-centered program. I had little experience, therefore, with the mandate that children must be prepared to take their places in the competitive global economy. The parents, with the support of the school, kept their son in kindergarten and paid me to meet with him weekly, despite my insistence that he did not need therapy — only more time to play! As the months wore on, his unhappiness grew and his behavior deteriorated. He became aggressive at school and started stealing. He developed nightmares and stomach aches.

At the end of the school year, I attended a conference with his parents, his teachers, the school principal, and the guidance counselor. I painstakingly repeated that although this child was very bright, he was being pushed beyond the limits of his abilities; he simply wasn’t developmentally ready to sit still for long stretches and focus on academic tasks. This explanation had no effect, so I spoke at length about his unhappiness. I recounted his nightmares and stress-related illnesses, his faltering confidence and emerging fearfulness. I told them he was suffering and that if he advanced to first grade he would suffer more. In the end his parents, with the school’s support, decided to advance him. What stunned me though was that no one in the room responded to this young boy’s unhappiness.

Since then, I have attended 32 parent-teacher conferences, two per year, for each of my own two children. Between conferences I’ve had countless additional meetings with teachers and principals to address various issues. I have discovered that very few educators have taken my children’s state of happiness seriously. Recently, for example, a student in my daughter’s high school, her friend and classmate since middle school, committed suicide. The principal sent a beautifully written letter to the families of the students expressing the importance of taking time to be with our children as they struggled to understand this tragedy, and the importance of giving youngsters time to grieve. But the night of the funeral my exhausted, grief stricken daughter came home to three hours of homework — work I could not persuade her to leave for another day. When I suggested to the principal that his letter would be more meaningful if he suspended homework for a few days, he was nonplused. He seemed unable to fathom that taking time to grieve means taking time out from everyday activities and responsibilities. The principal cautioned me that suspending homework might jeopardize the students’ future. I described my daughter’s present grief, her tears, and how she had wanted to talk with me but felt too pressured by homework demands to do so. I pointed out that she was one of many grieving students who needed more than a letter to work through their unhappiness.

In the end, as so often happens, it was suggested that maybe my daughter was unusual. Maybe she didn’t know how to plan her time well. Maybe she didn’t make good use of the counseling assembly held in the school auditorium. Furthermore, as I had often heard, I was the only parent complaining. I didn’t think this was true, but I wondered how widespread the problem really was. So I decided to do a little research.

Mental Health Statistics

How happy or unhappy are children in general today? As far as I know, there are no studies that directly address this question, but some research sheds light on it indirectly. According to the United States Surgeon General (U. S. Department of Health and Human Services 1999, Chapter 3), 21% of our nation’s children between the ages of 9 and 17 have emotional or behavioral disorders. The number of children who take antidepressant medication has increased dramatically; for example, between 1997 and 2002 its use among adolescents doubled (Varley et al. 2006). In 2002, the number of children taking stimulant medication for attention deficit disorder reached 2.2 million. (Zuvekas et al. 2006). Suicide is the leading cause of death among youth and young adults (Center for Disease Control 2007). In 2003, 8.4% of U.S. high school students attempted suicide and 16.9% seriously considered suicide (Shaffer, Gould & Hicks 2007).

These statistics don’t tell us how many children had “true” psychiatric problems, where unhappiness is entrenched in the personality and is difficult to alleviate by altering social conditions. Many children who are given medications or are labeled with “attention disorders” — or even contemplate suicide — may experience ordinary unhappiness. I suspect that ordinary unhappiness is buried in these statistics.

Improving Schools

If, as seems likely, school is a major source of children’s ordinary unhappiness, how might school be improved? In 2005, the Horatio Alger Association asked students, for the first time in its history, how school could be improved. Ninety-five percent of American high school students responded that school would be better if there were more opportunities for real-world learning through internships, service learning, and other opportunities to make the classroom work more relevant (p. 52). The survey also asked students their one wish to make life better. A combined 53% of students wished for more time with their families and more time for spiritual pursuits. No other choices combined ranked as high, including the wish for more money to buy material goods or the wish for a bigger house (p. 4).

These results are consistent with a recent nationwide survey of 1,280 young people from the age of 13 through 24, conducted by the Associated Press and MTV (Noveck & Thompson 2007b). Young people most often said that the “one thing in life” that makes them most happy was family and friends. Religion received a moderately high ranking. Almost no one said “money.” (The low ranking of money, incidentally, is consistent with survey research with adults [Carey 2004; McMahon 2006; Ricard 2006].)

If one valued student happiness, then, school improvement would focus on more relevant learning experiences and more time with family and friends. In today’s educational system, such changes are unlikely. Academic (test-measured) achievement trumps real-life learning, and homework deprives students of time with family and friends (Bennett & Kalish 2006; Kohn 2006).

Qualitative Reports

Surveys, while informative, don’t give us much of a feel for children’s unhappiness. More descriptive accounts of school-related misery, that often appear in newspapers and books, reveal the painful quality of children’s unhappiness today. One report (Shapiro 2005), for example, described 3rd graders weeping in the nurse’s office for fear of failing standardized tests. Another told the story of a first grader who, when pushed to complete excessive homework, falls apart — kicking, screaming and crying (Winerip 1999). A fifth grade boy cries about school every night and has to take Pepto-Bismol for his upset stomach (Bennett & Kalish 2006). Bennett and Kalish also report one of the more disturbing accounts of unhappy school children that I have read. In one school district, where a standardized test determines who will advance to the next grade, 20 children per day vomit on their test booklet. The director of testing and accountability for the district describes the pressure of this sort of high-stakes testing on the elementary and middle school children, saying, “They cry. They have to be removed. The stress is so much that they can’t handle it. As the tests start, they literally fall apart. It would break your heart” (Bennett & Kalish 2006, 112). I would only add, if we let it.

Another limitation of surveys is that, no matter how well-constructed they may be, they can never capture the complexity of the lived experience of happiness (or unhappiness, as the case may be). Happiness is not a category, which surveys can assess fairly well. It is more like a multifaceted and sensitive eco-system, flourishing or dying, depending on the delicate balance of all its elements.

Other Reasons for Unhappiness

I have so far discussed one major reason for ordinary unhappiness in children — schooling. But happiness is part of a bigger set of factors. The UNICEF study (2007) evaluated a broader set of factors that I believe give a better picture of children’s happiness. It did not directly ask U.S. children about happiness, but it assessed material comfort, education, health, relationships, spirituality, and safety in 21 industrialized nations. The United States ranked 20th, second to last, in the overall well-being of its children. This poor showing was not the result of a low score on one factor bringing down the average; the United States fell in the bottom third for 5 of the 6 factors reviewed. Great Britain, whose school children are tested even more than ours, came in last for the well-being of its children.

Research conducted by U.S. institutions has yielded similarly pessimistic findings. The Foundation for Child Development (2007), for example, estimated that in 2005 the health, social relationships, and emotional and spiritual well-being of America’s children was below 1975 baseline levels.

Why the Denial?

Earlier I discussed my impression that adults, even mental health professionals, have difficulty seeing when children are simply unhappy. Why is this so? Part of the reason, at least among parents and educators, is that adults’ eyes are focused elsewhere. The unhappy child is the non-achieving child, but it’s the lack of achievement that is visible to the adult. We see the test score, not the child.

Another reason for our inability to perceive children’s unhappiness became apparent to me in a personal episode. When my son was attending middle school, I discovered that one of his teachers routinely humiliated him in class. Up until then, I thought his unhappiness with school was the result of the unremitting pressure to tackle assignments far too advanced for even the brightest seventh grader. I had addressed the developmental appropriateness of the work at every turn, but this was something different.

I set up an appointment with the teacher to try to explain how my son felt humiliated, and I approached our meeting with the hope that she and I could find common ground in our mutual respect for children. When I arrived, however, things didn’t start well. The teacher made me wait as she busied herself with trivial tasks. When she sat with me at last, I didn’t feel she was prepared to hear me. I spoke to her about how unhappy my son was in her class, how her remarks hurt and humiliated him, but she minimized the issue and focused on my son’s lack of organizational skills and attention span. I brought the focus back to his unhappiness. She intimated that if I pursued the issue my son’s grade would suffer.

After 30 minutes I had made no headway in helping this teacher see my child’s unhappiness. I decided to try again. I spoke of my love for him. I told her that I was sure that she, an experienced and devoted teacher, had not meant to be hurtful. I described one last time how discouraged and unhappy my son felt when he left her class room each day. I asked her, “Is this what you want? Is this how you want your students to feel?”

Tears welled up in her eyes and began to stream down her face. She wept in earnest. We sat together as deep sobs overcame her. Finally, an altogether different woman said, “No.” She told me then about her own unhappiness — caused by the death of her husband and her subsequent unbearable loneliness. She said she had not even realized how cruel her grief had made her, that she was not herself. She deeply regretted my son’s unhappiness.

After this meeting my son was happier. His teacher finished the school year and then took a leave of absence. I do not know if she is happier now, but I will never forget her — the teacher, who in acknowledging her own unhappiness was able to see a child’s.

Very often, good and decent people, such as my son’s teacher, fail to appreciate children’s unhappiness because to do so brings them too close to their own. If adults were unhappy as youngsters it might mean their parents failed them; it might mean their happiness was unimportant. Wanting to avoid such thoughts is natural, but by doing so we foreclose the opportunity for reflective change and make it harder to feel for our children.

Concluding Thoughts

Happiness is closely related to the development of the whole person. Fostering a child’s full development and thereby promoting her happiness takes time. A little boy who begins kindergarten too early needs more time to mature. Students who lose someone need time to grieve.

However, our culture’s emphasis on the single-minded pursuit of material wealth leaves little time for anything but getting and spending. Time spent with nature, hanging out with friends, spiritual practices, or just lazing about — such leisurely activities are at odds with today’s culture of goal-direct, efficient, wealth-producing effort.

Childhood activities that bring pleasure, including play, are lived in the present. But as Crain (2003) emphasizes, in the United States the present isn’t valued nearly as much as the future. When adults consider children’s activities, they want to know how the activities will bring success in terms of college admissions or the future workplace. Even the child’s current suffering is lost in the concern for the future. Consider, for example, child poverty from the point of view of the nation’s largest charitable hunger relief program:

The problem of child hunger is not simply a moral issue. Scientific evidence suggests that hungry children are less likely to become productive citizens. A child who is unequipped to learn because of hunger and poverty is more likely to be poor as an adult. As such, the existence of childhood hunger in the United States threatens future American prosperity. (America’s Second Harvest 2007)

Consumerism itself masks our sensitivity to children’s feelings. Capitalism focuses on people’s economic well-being, not their emotional well-being. Our schools are, more than ever, the means to the end of global economic supremacy. For a child to prosper within such an environment, she need only become a cog in the economic machine. Subjects and activities that lack obvious economic value can be eliminated. Happiness, and the fullest development of the child, need not be considered.

If we were to look squarely at the ordinary unhappiness of just one child — that is, if we pondered it until we had achieved the deepest understanding of his or her experience — what would happen? I believe that, like my son’s middle school teacher, we might be brought to tears. We might recognize the forces behind our own unhappiness, how we ourselves have suffered from unremitting pressure to make the grade and the subsequent narrowing of all that was meaningful to us. If we then let compassion overtake us, we might do something remarkable. We might, for example, take a leave of absence to give ourselves more time to live in the present. We might adopt a more modest lifestyle that balances work with devotion to our deepest values. We might, in other words, decide that the happiness children naturally seek is the most important thing in life — for them and for ourselves as well.


America’s Second Harvest. 2007. Child hunger facts. Available online at

Bennett, Sara, and Nancy Kalish. 2006. The case against homework: How homework is hurting our children and what we can do about it. New York: Crown.

Carey, Benedict. 2004, December 2. What makes people happy? TV, Study says. New York Times.

Center for Disease Control. 2007, September 7. MMWR Weekly 56(35): 905-908.

Crain, William. 2003. Reclaiming childhood: Letting children be children in our achievement-oriented society. New York: Holt.

The Dalai Lama. 2001. An open heart. New York: Little, Brown.

Foundation for Child Development. 2007. Child and youth well-being index 1975-2005. Available online at

Horatio Alger Association. 2005. The state of our nation’s youth. 2005-2006. Alexandria, VA: Author.

Kohn, Alfie 2006. The homework myth. Cambridge, MA: DaCapo Press.

McMahon, Darrin, M. 2006. Happiness: A history. New York: Grove Press.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. 1999. Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services, National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Mental Health. Available online at

Noveck, Joceyln, and Trevor Thompson. 2007a, August 28. Stress divides young Americans along gender lines. Associated Press. Reported in Kalamazoo Gazette.

Noveck, Jocelyn, and Thompson, Trevor 2007b, August 27. What makes you happy? Young people say family ties, faith, belonging. Associated Press. Reported in Kalamazoo Gazette.

Portland Public School District. 2000. Surveys show high satisfaction with Portland public schools. Available online at

Ricard, Matthieu. 2006. Happiness. New York: Little, Brown.

Shaffer, David, Madelyn Gould, and Roger Hicks. 2007. Teen Suicide Fact Sheet. Teen screen. New York: Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons. Available online at

Shapiro, Nina. 2005, November 23. The stress test. Seattle Weekly.

UNICEF. 2007. Report card 7: An overview of child well-being in rich countries.

Varley, C. K., B. Vitiello, S. H. Zuvekas, & G. S. Norquist. 2006, March. National estimates of antidepressant medication use among U.S. children, 1997- 2002. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry 45 (3): 271-9.

Winerip, Michael. 1999, January 3. Homework bound. New York Times, Section 4A, 28.

Zuvekas, S. H., B. Vitiello, & G. S. Norquist. 2002, April. Recent trends in stimulant medication use among U.S. children. American Journal of Psychiatry 163: 579-585.

End Note

On rare occasions, researchers have asked elementary and secondary students to rate their schools (Portland School District 2000; Horatio Alger Association 2005). These ratings, however, do not evaluate the extent to which children themselves are happy in school.