Which Do You Want Most – For Your Kids to be Happy, Good, or Successful?

Category: Moral Question of the Week

Happy Song

My friend and sort of mentor, Dennis Prager, has asked this question OFTEN in his speeches, writings, and on his radio show of parents. Which do you want most for your kids; to be happy, good, or successful? It is NOT a simple question and the answer that Dennis received most of the time motivated a lot of his talks and writing. What is your biggest wish for YOUR kids – of these three – is this week’s Moral Question of the Week. Please post your answer in the comments section, below…

  • Fabiana Saba

    good! That will help them be happy, successful and in peace

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      @FabiSaba – you’d be surprised how many people answer, “Happy!” You can be VERY happy and be VERY evil! Good is the place where it all comes from – happiness and success!

  • http://www.ericpbutts.com/ EB

    Good people can also be miserable. I don’t want my kids to be evil but I put happiness above all else. If I do my job what makes them happy will closely align with being a good people.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      @ebuttscpa:disqus – thanks for the comment, Eric. It’s obviously not a science but it’s my belief – as learned from Dennis Prager – that goodness is the path to most everything else. Yes, there are exceptions but…

  • http://stanfaryna.wordpress.com Stan Faryna

    Dear God, make my son in your likeness – good, blessed, righteous, overflowing in love, pure of heart, faithful and sanctified.

    Thank you, God.

    [I will be grateful to you if you join me in this blessing. Just say “Amen” in the reply and you will be blessed.]

    It is written that joy is a consequence of goodness, love, and righteousness.

    Because happiness and success tend to be understood in an extra-moral context, I do not trust in them. Not to mention that “extra-moral” happiness and success are like the leaves of grass. Or the world. They are fickle, dangerous and pass quickly like sand that is grasped and runs through the fingers of even the mightiest hand.

    Difficulty, pain, challenge, tribulation, disappointment and sorrow is not without purpose.

    “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tested you in the furnace of affliction…”

    Isaiah 48:10

    Likewise, loss, failure and rejection have lessons for us. How wide and deep has my compassion and sympathy for the other has grown thereby! Therefore, I would not want for my son not to grow because he was spared them. For not all growing can be sweet, gentle and happy.

    If my son is good, he shall overcome every trial, test and fire. And he will be a joy to God, to me, to all people who know love and to himself.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Amen – beautifully written @faryna:disqus

      • http://stanfaryna.wordpress.com Stan Faryna

        God bless you, Bruce!

  • David Weber

    This feels like a minefield question, i.e., there is in the mind of the interrogator a “right” answer and if you don’t issue it, you may as well consider yourself a jackass.

    Many years ago, I encountered a column written by Dennis Prager in which he stated something like the following: “I am able to know everything I need to know about someone’s moral commitments by knowing how he or she stands on the matter of the death penalty.” The column explained how if someone was for the death penalty it meant all sorts of good things about his or her moral sensibility; and if he or she was not for the death penalty, it meant all sorts of bad things. (I personally believe that the nature and depths of one’s ethical commitments and moral grounding are far more complex than can be inferred from his or her position on one specific political or sociocultural issue, but that’s another story.)

    I have in fact met Dennis Prager, attended a weekend retreat he facilitated in about 1980, and twice since about 2003 been an anonymous caller on his show. But Dennis and I don’t really “know” one another. Nonetheless, I’m externally-referenced just enough to want to be thought of as a jackass by as small a number of people as possible, even by someone who doesn’t know me.

    Accordingly, my answer to this week’s moral question is: “None of the above.” Instead, I call attention to a concept Bruce has included in his writings on many occasions in the past: tikkun olam, which refers to the Talmudic principle, prominent in Jewish ethics, of contributing to the repair of the world.

    I would want my offspring — I don’t have children, so this is really what I like to believe I would want for them — to be committed, in their choices and actions, to participating in tikkun olam. Accordingly, if the route they choose to make this happen is a focus on becoming happy or successful, I can live with either.

    For me, the concept of NOT being good yet still participating in tikkun olam does not really compute. I suppose that a person who is not “good” may on this occasion or that do something that could be perceived as contributing to the repair of the world. But as a way of life or as a central commitment in one’s life, I would consider being “good” is an essential goal if you want to involve yourself in t.o.

    Of course, imagine the meanest, nastiest, most awful person you know or know of — pick your favorite despot, for example — and he or she probably would say, “Yes, I am contributing to the repair of the world” if asked. So even the person who is not “good” by most objective standards probably thinks he or she is, according to some very specific and likely wildly idiosyncratic standards, “good.” (As would his or her devotees.)

    But that matter aside, the reason I like t.o. as an answer to the question is that it drives one slightly toward measurability of one’s actions. Consider that if I am “happy,” that is an internal state of affairs — I feel it or I don’t. There is no outward measure of happiness. “Good” is perhaps easier to measure, as long as the evaluator has a sense of what a “good” person does, and can observer whether that person’s actions match or don’t match the implicit or explicit criteria in question.

    “Successful” is easy to measure as long as the criteria are simple … e.g., I am “successful” if my paycheck is within a sequence of years higher and higher beyond, say, a C.O.L.A. or a bonus issued to all hands regardless of performance. It is more difficult to measure when it gets into territory that does not have tangible data points to assess.

    For example, I am a college professor. Am I “successful” by the measurement that end-of-semester student evaluations constitute? Or am I “successful” by, in contrast, some information I received recently from the office of the Dean of Students’? Every semester, the seniors due to graduate that semester identify in an exit survey the one or two professors who had the most notable impact on them. I read the ten or so brief testimonials from students who had “walked” (i.e., completed their undergraduate programs) in June. They were touchingly and clearly complimentary; and I would not be surprised if one or another of them had, some years before, written evaluations of me that were NOT complimentary.

    But what I think is my commitment to “doing the right thing” (which may be a cognate concept to t.o.) as an education professional overcame, when those students would have been in my classrooms, my short-term desire to be liked or evaluated highly. Student evaluations, especially among one’s youngest students, pivot notoriously on whether the student thinks the professor is “cool” or funny or attractive or assigns less rather than more work, or has easier rather than more difficult exams.

    My desire to participate in t.o. is what leads me to go for the gold ring of EVENTUAL vindication of my instructional approach. I have learned to relish the testimonials from the soon-to-be-graduating students more than I dislike the evaluations that are sent to me at, ironically, roughly the same time as the testimonials are. I have received the set of testimonials every semester that I have been a professor; some of my colleagues have not.

    Consequently, I flatter myself to think I am in my particular way participating in t.o. I take pride in that — and it is one reason that I am happy, one reason that I am motivated to be good (because as I suggested one cannot routinely “do” tikkun olam if one is not “good”) — and by those criteria, I would say I am successful.

    The good news, then, about t.o. is that compared to the other three, it is measurable by some objective standards. Yes, as I suggested, an evil despot may look upon the results of his or her policies and actions and think, “Yes, I have contributed to the repair of the world, and perhaps even in fact repaired it.” But a despot is always going to market his or her works as meritorious, laudable and to his or her credit. For those of us who are struggling to as mere private citizens, who cannot themselves dictate the criteria by which we will be judged and our works evaluated, to orient to t.o. gives us a criterion that is relatively external (relative, surely, to those available to “happy” and “good”), and therefore relatively observable and measurable. We can, that is, tell if we are leaning toward or away from contributing to the repair of the world. We can even ask for an “objective” assessment on the matter from a trusted colleague or loved one.

    Accordingly, I would, in conclusion, propose that to aim for happiness, goodness or success — or to desire one over the others for one’s children — is not the best strategy for moving through life, or coaching others to move through life. Instead, desire for them and yourself that one contributes to the repair of the world, if only because doing so is an actionable driver of the other three conditions that themselves may be desirable.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Errr, David – could I get a “Yes” or a “No” please? LOL…I suppose your answer is predictable given WHO you are and HOW very thoughtful you are (sincerely). And, I LOVE your answer but “none of the above” was NOT an option. And, yes the question was a minefield. Good still works best and teaching Tikkun Olam and practicing it is a very wonderful thing to do. So, in essence I completely agree with you and meaningfully LOVE your comment! Thanks so much, old friend!

    • http://stanfaryna.wordpress.com Stan Faryna

      That’s a really thoughtful answer but I don’t know if it escapes the intrigue and nuances it hopes to avoid. [grin] For example, can one practice tikkun olam without being good, without knowing what good is and, furthermore, without having a profound relationship with the living source of all good?

      • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

        Yes @faryna:disqus, but in the end those “actions” are GOOD for the world and better than feelings and talk!

        • http://stanfaryna.wordpress.com Stan Faryna

          What is good for the world? The answer can be problematic when the reference is limited by our own actual intelligence, wisdom, vision, resources, necessities and prejudice.

          What we may understand as good for me may not be good for you. Worse, the unpondered long-term consequences may thereby prove to be bad for me.

          In a nutshell, this is the argument of global warming which may or may not be an accurate reading of unusual climate events.

      • David Weber

        I agree with what you are suggesting about being good. In my comment wrote that “for me, the concept of NOT being good yet still participating in tikkun olam does not really compute …. I would consider being ‘good’ is an essential goal if you want to involve yourself in t.o.”

        Regarding your comment about the Creator, there is a very great and long tradition of explaining how ethical practice can be accomplished even absent belief in a deity, and how even without such belief an ethical system can be constructed. One’s position on this hinges on whether or not someone possesses or has chosen to embrace that certain kind of willing or voluntary belief we call faith.

        My observation is that if a person has come to be a person of faith, ethical constructs and practices are for him or her sourced from or stewarded by a divinity. If a person is not a person of faith, a different set of understandings about ethics, morality and associated practices must take hold. I don’t think of either of those paradigms as inherently preferable to the other, if only because the actionable choices (i.e., contributing to the repair of the world) are congruent across the paradigms.

        • http://stanfaryna.wordpress.com Stan Faryna

          I savor this discussion. Thank you, David.

          I admire Artistotle’s Nichomachean Ethics. But Aristotle (and Mortimer Adler by extension) are very confused in at least one regard – the Aristolelian virtues are founded upon human pride and vanity which we all know to be suspect (or worse). A secondary but more relevant problem is that Aristotle is not for every man as Adler had hoped, bragged and proclaimed. And, to put it bluntly, if he really believed that proposition, he was self-deceived and not a student of human nature. Aristotle for the enlightened aristocrat. As was Confucius.

          Mere belief in a deity is also problematic. Because believing isn’t doing or living the truth. Awareness of truth, goodness and beauty is insufficient. So I see a misunderstanding of faith which I have not resolved to my own satisfaction, but if faith does not include obedience, complete trust and certain self-denial, we’re not really talking about faith that the God of Abraham, Moses, Daniel and Isaiah was talking about. Or Jesus.

          I reflect on what is called the Greatest Commandment as reported in Matthew 22:34-40. We are not called to a reasonable and intellectual preponderance of a deity. We are called to love, to express that love in good action and, yes, to live that love.

          It is a considerable challenge to be sure.

          I agree that there are apparent parallels between the great philosophies and religions. However, humanism must ultimately claim humanity and the world for it’s own selfish purposes and, yes, it makes itself a judge of Man and we see this inadequately worked out in feminism for example.

          Religions, on the other hand, suggest that we and our experience of the world belong to transcendental operations which exceed both our idic, civil and enlightened ambitions.

          Of the two, I imagine that the latter is preferable. Because even if the latter were to be demonstrated to be untrue, it takes us out of the box and allows us to consider the other (the world in this case) in a manner that we reserve for ourselves.

          • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

            @faryna:disqus – your last paragraph IS the reason we must reach OUTSIDE Of ourselves and where David’s arguments fail in my opinion, however well-articulated they are. David comes from a moderately religious background so I know he knows from what he talks about and I know he’s as ethical a man as there is…but I can’t count on “Davids” in the sum of humanity, that is FOR SURE!

        • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

          IF we don’t hold ourselves to a standard greater than OUR own beliefs or feelings, then we are only as good as those “feelings” and I don’t trust the average human and his or her “feelings” one iota!

  • Blair Warner

    Of course we want to see our children obtain all 3, but I believe if they grow up knowing what it really means to be good, and live it out, then happiness, and a certain amount of success will follow. I say a certain amount of success because success also includes other skills and disciplines. People these days are very confused about what it means to be good – mostly because their personal success and happiness come first, and a good part of the definition of goodness involves thinking and caring about others, which you can’t do if your happiness and success are the priorities.

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      @blair_warner:disqus – you hit the nail on the head, Blair – success is so nuanced, but good is good! Happy is a song…lol…

  • SharonMomsMadhouse

    UGH…why did I feel compelled to read this post? You sure make me think sometimes. Okay, so…happiness is not a promise or a guarantee. Even our founders knew enough to say we have the right to pursue it, not that we were entitled to it. And a rapist may find happiness in rape, so happiness is in the eye of the beholder. I guess.

    Do I want my six kids happy and successful? You betcha…but they could never obtain that without being good.

    Anyone can be “happy” and/or “successful” and not be good.

    And there is no way I’m going to debate what “good” is. I’m going to put it in it’s simplest form. Being kind to others. When Jesus was asked, “What is the greatest commandment,” He told us, “Love thy neighbor.”

    That is the ultimate good.

    Mother Teresa was very good, but not always happy because she cried for the suffering of others, and some would say she was not successful because she was a poor person. But she sure was good, wasn’t she?

    I believe we can only obtain true happiness and being successful by being good.

    After all…what does it matter after we’re dead? Only the price on our souls. Right?

    • http://www.brucesallan.com Bruce Sallan

      Your six kids are blessed to have such a smart Mom @sharonmomsmadhouse:disqus – so glad to have your added wisdom to this post!

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