The unbearable happiness of being a modern-day parent

Nurturing my daughters' resilience and empathy is just as important as watching out for their happiness

I am starting this column from the perspective of a non-parent - I'm still feeling the exasperation of the Apple store employees I recently saw receiving the full brunt of an irate, unreasonable father, whose daughter was unable to record any video or shoot any photographs of a concert she had attended.

The iPhone she had - an old model, probably more than four years old - apparently crashed on her, despite having just had its battery changed at the Apple store.

Without going into too much technical detail, the father's point, angrily made over and over again, was that the phone was supposed to have been returned to him in good working condition after a battery change at the store.

Overheard: He had paid a few hundred dollars for his daughter's ticket to the highly anticipated concert.

All of her friends were happily snapping away on their functioning phones, leaving her even more distraught that she had no digital mementos from the event while her friends did.

Sorry, sorry, sorry, the Apple employees kept saying.

It was not clear what more the father expected of them: Compensation? A new iPhone? An apology to his daughter? Another ticket to the concert should the pop star come to town again? Free repair? (That last course of action was not in doubt in my mind, so the man's anger was surely not needed if he had wanted only that.)

The concert is over, the damage to her happiness had been done. No amount of ranting will change the situation.

Of course, the girl's friends could e-mail her the concert photos and videos they had captured. Then again, I am guessing this entirely reasonable answer would further incense the father because how could the Apple employees not know that the girl's happiness depended crucially on having not just attended the concert in the flesh, but also to have snapped her own pictures and recorded her own videos.

It seemed all that matters, above all, is the daughter's happiness. Why else would her father travel all the way to the store to vent?

As a parent, I cringed at that father's behaviour and also at my own complicity in sometimes - sub-consciously - prioritising my two daughters' happiness above many other considerations.

Not so long ago, one of them was apparently snubbed by one of her friends. My daughter, of course, was crestfallen, upset enough to ask her sister to accompany her to see the school counsellor.

When I found out about the snub, I was upset. I raged, I cussed (inwardly), I spat pejoratives (to my wife). A stake had been driven through the heart of my daughter's happiness, not to mention emotional well-being, and I was not going to take it lying down.

I could not have reacted more wrongly.

While I did check with my daughter that she was okay and observed her intermittently over the next few days to make sure she recovered from that blow, I still should not have wasted my energy on being angry.

Whatever retaliation I could conjure up against the offender would not benefit my daughter in any way (if she were the kind to take pleasure in seeing others miserable, then I would have much more serious concerns on my hands).

Instead, I should have conserved the mental effort needed to stay angry to journey with her through a bad patch.

Her happiness is important to me, but so should her resilience and empathy.

I could have used the opportunity to counsel her myself, instead of leaving it to the school counsellor: Friendship means trying to understand that her friend might have a good reason for doing what she did, or that it might have been a miscommunication after all, etc.

Eventually, my anger subsided, mostly because I saw that my daughter and that girl are still good friends.

I wished that I had played a bigger, more nurturing role in helping her weather that emotional storm; the truth is, she did it mostly on her own, with a little help from her sister and the school counsellor.

I am so proud of my daughters, not so proud of myself.

Reams of words have been written on how elevating the happiness of our children above everything else erodes their strength of character and contributes to the worst qualities of the so-called Strawberry Generation of young men and women who are easily bruised.

I shall spare you the preaching, which I am not qualified to do anyway.

What I can do is try and teach my daughters the value of praying this prayer, attributed to the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr:

"God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference."

Living the truth of this prayer may well lead to true, lasting joy, rather than fleeting happiness.

That said, have a happy Chinese New Year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 18, 2018, with the headline 'The unbearable happiness of being a modern-day parent'. Print Edition | Subscribe