We are walking between two tractors in a barn when I say something very stupid to my 22-month-old son. We’ve been at this farm for about an hour, the kind of place where you can reach your fingers through the fence to pet the goats and stare into the pigpen and marvel at how much bigger pigs are than you think. It’s a mysteriously warm winter day, and my son has thrown his jacket off, his stroller discarded somewhere around the sheep pen. For the first time in months, we are feeling the sun on our faces. He’s having the time of his life. He’s already pet a one-day-old lamb and has discovered that in the barn we are currently walking through there’s not one, not two, but three tractors.
And then I decide to say, “Do you think the cat is in here today?”
Last time we were here in the fall, there was a big, gray cat who got just close enough so that my toddler could bend down, reach out the tips of his fingers, and briefly graze its arched back. But that was enough. He’d brought up the cat for days, and I knew if he saw it again, he’d be so, so happy.
Except there was one problem. The cat wasn’t here.
Why did I have to mention the cat? It was a perfect moment; we were like an illustration from a children’s picture book. But now, there was only one thing my son wanted to do: find the cat. I’d reminded him that there was a cat. And he loves cats. Especially this cat, the famed cat that let him touch his fur for a fraction of a second. So of course, in a very cat-like fashion, the cat was nowhere to be found.
That’s when the tears began. The three tractors were no longer enough. The baby goats—garbage. The teeny tiny lambs only minutes ago he was thrilled to be petting. Who needs them? It was only the cat now.
“I don’t know,” I said, hoping his outburst wasn’t calling too much attention to us from the less cat-obsessed farm visitors. “He’s probably sleeping somewhere.”
“WHERE CAT,” he demanded, over and over again.
And just like that, I’d broken my own biggest rule of parenting: Never try to make a happy kid happier.
This rule came to me via my friend Joanna, who had learned it from her parents. As soon as she told me, I knew she’d identified one of my greatest weaknesses as a parent. I always want my son to be having a good time, and there’s some part of me that worries if I’m not actively trying to make his time better, it’s not as good as it could be.
As a baby, if he was enjoying gnawing on a particular teether, I’d jump in to give him another one, too. Oh, he likes the dog at this park? Let’s leave this park with one dog to find a dog park full of dogs. If he was having a perfectly nice time throwing rocks in a puddle, I’d offer to find him better rocks that would make an even bigger splash.
There’s an impulse in us as parents not just to nurture, to make sure all gaps are closed. We want to provide the complete package for our kids, to make sure all their needs are met in the best possible way. And that urge is good. It’s why we don’t abandon them in the woods when they won’t stop crying at 4 a.m. and why we keep feeding them every day even when they throw everything we offer on the floor. But it also means we can fail to notice when we aren’t needed.
What “don’t make a happy kid happier” does is remind me that sometimes, just being happy is enough. Kids live in a world of the immediate now, where whatever they are doing is often the only thing on their minds. Yes, there might be bigger, splashier rocks to throw in the puddle, but the rocks they have in their hand suit them just fine. What I think I’m doing when I do this is helping my son, but what I’m actually doing is pointing out that what he’s doing might not be good enough. Suddenly he can see that the emperor has no clothes, and it actually becomes not good enough.
We never did find the cat. But I paid the price for my misstep in toddler currency: a temper tantrum. He settled down eventually, and by the time we left the farm, he was happily kicking and chatting in his stroller. I thought about stopping for ice cream at the gift shop, but I decided against it this time. He was just fine.