Tag Archives: happiness

Hopecasting excerpt: The Happy Police (A Hope Enemy)

a selection from Hopecasting:

As someone who’s spent thirty-three years in youth ministry—the majority of that with middle schoolers—I’ve certainly experienced my share of embarrassing ministry moments.1 But most of them have centered on malapropisms or other verbal blunders. Only a handful of times have I experienced the sort of embarrassment that made me angry.

I was a rookie junior high pastor at a large church in the Midwest. Our aging outreach and evangelism pastor, a wonderful and gracious man, held massive sway in the church due to his history and alignment with the church’s values. So when he told us all about an “opportunity” to host an event to evangelize business leaders in our community, the other pastors went along with it.

The event centered on bringing in a known motivational speaker who happened to be a Jesus-y person in private. Though no one on our leadership would have used the term, we were going to employ
the classic bait and switch approach to evangelism. Youth ministries have done this for decades, so I’m quite familiar with it (“Come for the haunted house! Then we’ll trap you in a room and scare you into heaven!”). Full disclosure: I wasn’t that uncomfortable, at that time in my maturity and spiritual journey, with a bait and switch. But I still felt it should be handled with a bit of finesse.

I’ll call the motivational speaker Bobby W. Clark, which is not his real name. He has long since passed away, so my purpose in telling this story is not to denigrate the name of a dead privately Christian motivational speaker but to illustrate our confusion about Hope and optimism.

The W in his name—whatever it stood for on his birth certificate—was part of his schtick, and he went by Bobby “Wonderful” Clark. As I would come to find out, he was a very minor celebrity who’d been working the corporate pump-’em-up circuit longer than I’d been alive. The plan for our church’s event was this: Host a nice dinner in a hotel ballroom, with the opportunity to hear this Wonderful business speaker. Guilt our church members, particularly those with influential business roles, to invite (persuade) multitudes of business associates to attend. Slip in the gospel. And, BAM, more business leaders in heaven!

I wasn’t in business. I didn’t have business associates. But my wife did. She was a low-level but professional employee at a natural gas trading company (yes, fodder for lots of jokes about “natural gas” in my junior high ministry world). So I did what I thought I was supposed to do: I pressured my wife to pressure her business associates to attend this Wonderful opportunity. And a few of them, very reluctantly, came along.

The food was good enough. But good old Bobby: well, let’s just say the operative word in that phrase was “old.” Seriously, I think he came out of retirement for this gig so he could afford another golf trip to Florida or something.

I have two extremely groan-worthy memories of that night, even though it was well over twenty years ago. The first of those memories was the root of my anger-tinged embarrassment. Bobby’s bait and switch was just the worst I’d ever seen. After offering literally three minutes of business-y clichés (shorter than his introduction by the evening’s emcee), he launched into a horribly hackneyed and manipulative presentation of the gospel complete with a simultaneously high pressure and confusing prayer of salvation. My wife and I were both horrified. Our church had traded on her friendships with colleagues and given them nothing more than a caricature of their worst assumptions of what the night might contain.

But my second memory of that night is the reason I tell this story. Bobby had a signature move. Really. Like, no one else could do that move without someone saying, “Hey, that’s Bobby W. Clark’s move!” I think there’s a little twisted part of me that admires anyone who has a signature move. Except…

Bobby’s signature move went like this: he would say something like, “I’m Bobby Clark, and I’m here to tell you that Life is Wonderful!” When Bobby said this last phrase (which he said multiple times during his talk) he would kick one long leg (he was really tall) high in the air. It was a bit startling the first time you saw it since it’s not a common movement for a man in a business suit.

But remember, Bobby was old. And his signature move required a bit more coordination—even athleticism—than Bobby possessed by that night. The first time he attempted the kick, right after he was
introduced, there was a long pause between “I’m here to tell you that life is…” and “wonderful,” with the leg kick. It was like he had to coax his body into action. On his first attempt, he only got his leg partially up in the air, and stumbled to the side. The audience silently willed him to move on, but he was not going to leave without executing his signature move.

It took him three tries. But he got it. And with newly reinvigorated confidence, Bobby busted out the leg kick three or four more times during his talk, rivaling even the Rockettes.

happy cageMr. Wonderful was selling us a very, very subtle lie that even he likely had no awareness of: pretending you’re happy makes life better. The core of Bobby’s motivational schtick was simple: choose to be happy, select the perky option, pretend that nothing’s wrong, ignore your pain, and you’ll be more productive and garner success.

I like happiness. Nothing wrong with that. And I generally agree with the sentiment that Life is Wonderful. But leg kicks and smiles won’t close the gap between the life I’m living and the life I long for.

Several years ago now, a little book called The Secret sold millions and became a runaway New York Times bestseller. The essence of The Secret was simply this: visualize the positive future you want for yourself, claim it to be true, and it will come to be.

And while Christians might have chafed at that message (for good reasons), we have all too often taught a version of the same. Sure, we spread a little Jesus mayo on that self-actualization sandwich. We say it’s God who brings the blessing, not our own efforts at positive thinking. But really, what we’ve often taught (and thought) is only a tiny shade different: our positive thinking allows God to bless us.

A Happy Teenager is a Lame Parenting Goal

a publisher asked me to write a short parenting book yesterday. and my teenage son is out of town this week on a class trip (and my 20 year-old daughter is away at college): so we’re getting a taste of empty nest. those factors mashed up to bring to the surface some thoughts i’ve had percolating for a while.

A Rant:

holy cow, so many parents have absorbed, like sponges, the misguided idea that the goal of parenting a teenager is for the teen to be happy.

happywith that goal in mind, they become obligated to parent with a set of behaviors and practices that misfire and don’t get them to their (misguided) goal:

  • “sure, i’m your parent; but i really want to be your friend!”
  • “i want to protect you and keep you safe, free from any scratches or dangers.”
  • “unless it’s in an area where your exploration will give you happiness, then i want you to have that.”
  • “oh, you made a really bad choice? i don’t like that you made that choice, but i’ll remove the consequences, because they would make you unhappy.”
  • “you’re too young for responsibility. you can think about that stuff when you’re an adult. i’m sure you’ll magically become responsible at that point.”

A Concession:

but i have compassion for parents of teenagers. and, as a parent of a teenager and a 20 year-old (who i refuse to consider a teenager), i hope you’ll have compassion on me.

i am regularly bombarded (as are all parents of teenagers) with the message that my teen’s happiness should be my goal. i’m told that my teenager’s happiness is my measure of success. i’m told that i’m a BAD PARENT if:

  • i don’t remove consequences to bad choices.
  • i don’t give my teenager everything s/he wants.
  • i give him or her meaningful responsibility and expectation.

really, it has become downright COUNTERCULTURAL to parent teenagers with any goal other than an obsession with their happiness.

i’m convinced that a big part of this is because the american dream has changed.

Why the Shift?

for centuries, the american dream has promised that if you work hard, you can possess the good life. this dream has morphed, to be sure, in its definition. the shift is located in our collective desire of what we want to possess. even as recently as thirty or forty years ago, the good life was primarily about property ownership, with a side helping of possessing relationships. that might be a little snarky, but the image of a poor immigrant, dreaming of one day owning a piece of land, or a home, and raising a family while applying oneself to “a good day’s work” was as clear as a norman rockwell painting.

my paternal grandparents lived this dream. maria and rudy separately left germany in their middle teenage years, steaming toward the american dream on a ship. both headed for detroit, where each had cousins or siblings who had recently put down roots. eventually meeting and marrying, they lived the life one can imagine them dreaming of as they had one foot on the gangplank and one foot on the ship leaving europe.

rudy spent his life as an electrician for detroit edison (now called DTE energy). they had a simple but comfortable home, raising a family of three children (my father included) in ann arbor, michigan. at retirement age, they did what retirees were supposed to do in those days, moving to clearwater, florida, and a massive retirement community where she could fill her days with ceramics classes, and he could fill his with golf.

by 20th century standards, they lived the american dream.

but the 21st century has a different set of values. today’s american dream is about possessing happiness, not property. material things are still a major part of the picture (maybe more than ever), since the assumption for many is that “stuff” will provide happiness.

but increasingly, today’s young adults, and thirty- and forty-somethings, are less interested in property possession and raising a family, and are more interested in a variety of other perceived happiness producers: fun, travel, adventure, meaning or significance, community, and freedom (not freedom to own things, but freedom from being anchored to anything).

The Result:

how’s this parenting approaching working out for us, by the way?

teen languagelet’s see… i’d suggest these results:

  • adolesence is extending faster than pinocchio’s nose. young adults don’t know how to take responsbility for themselves because they’ve never been given responsibility.
  • teenagers and young adults are increasingly being treated like children. this certainly does damage, and is darn close to abusive.
  • teenagers are no happier than they were a decade or two ago (prior to this absurd pendulum swing).
  • parents are not experiencing more satisfaction in their roles. in fact, more parents feel like failures than ever.
  • basically: everyone loses. no one is getting what they actually want.

time to take stock and consider a redirect, i’d say.

The Better Goal:

i believe the goal of parenting a teenager is independence. in other words, i’m more interested in raising adults than “raising kids.” sure, we’re not ultimately made for independence; god made us in his own image, wired for interdependence. but the dependence children have on their parents needs to shift during and after the teen years, with young adults both moving into interdependence with other people and their parents. so: i’m sticking with “independence” as a parenting teenagers goal: my kids have to experience healthy independence from me (and my wife) before they can choose another alternative.

to that end, i continue to wrestle my own internal insecurities, pressure from our culture, and fear of failure, to practice these commitments:

  • i will not treat my daughter or son like children. i will view them and think of them and treat them as apprentice adults rather than living the last few years of childhood.
  • i will be err on the side of giving freedom for decision making (which is not the same thing as disengaging, or abdicating). i will create clearly articulated boundaries within which glorious amounts of freedom and decision making can be exercised.
  • i will not remove the consequences of bad choices, even if the consequences will be challenging and a threat to happiness (and even if the consequences are a major inconvenience to me).
  • i totally dig my daughter and son, and love spending time with them; but i will neither fool myself into thinking i’m their peer, nor expect them to include me as a peer.

i’d love for my daughter and son to be happy (in case you thought i was suggesting the opposite). and i think they generally are happy. it’s just not the goal of my parenting. and it shouldn’t be yours, if you want to see your teenagers grow into healthy adults.

ok. who’s with me?


Mark Oestreicher is a partner in The Youth Cartel, a veteran youth worker, and a parent of a 20 year-old daughter and 16 year-old son. He speaks frequently to parents, and is the author or co-author of six books for parents, including A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Guys, A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Girls, A Parents Guide to Understanding Teenage Brains, A Parents Guide to Understanding Social Media, A Parents Guide to Understanding Sex & Dating, and Understanding Your Young Teen. With his own “apprentice adults,” he co-authored a book for teenagers: 99 Thoughts on Raising Your Parents.