If you want your children to be happy adults and even happy children — and what parent does not? — minimize the excitement in their lives. The more excitement, the less happy they are likely to be.
In both adults and children, one can either pursue excitement or pursue happiness, but one cannot do both. If you pursue excitement, you will not attain happiness. If you pursue happiness, you will still experience some moments of excitement, but you will attain happiness only if happiness, not excitement, is your goal.
When we give our child a present, he experiences excitement, and we are delighted when we see how happy he is. When done occasionally — a holiday, a birthday — this is perfectly fine and even beneficial. Children should have those special moments and remember forever that wonderful Christmas, Chanukah or birthday present.
But because we parents so delight in the excitement we see in our children at those moments — because they seem so happy then — we can easily fall into the trap of providing more and more exciting things to keep them seemingly happy at just about every moment. And they in turn come to rely on getting excited to keep them happy and to identify excitement with happiness.
But excitement is not happiness. In fact, it is the ultimate drug.
It is excitement that people seek when engaging in any destructive addictive behaviors. Excitement is a major part of what people seek in doing drugs, in having sex with multiple partners, in gambling (from slot machines to risky stock purchases) or in having an extra-marital affair. And even for many criminals, excitement is a major lure of criminal behavior.
It is argued that we are programmed to desire excitement. But we are also programmed to be lazy, to be irresponsible and to eat unhealthy foods. And just as these other natural instincts do not lead us to happiness, neither does excitement.
Today's young people have the ability to experience excitement more than any generation in history. Outside of school, excitement is available almost 24/7. MTV is exciting (MTV has done far more damage to this generation than has the tobacco industry); video games are exciting; the nearly all-pervasive sexual stimuli are exciting; MySpace (largely a human cesspool) is exciting; getting tattooed is exciting; piercings are exciting; many pictures and videos on the Internet are exciting. The list of exciting things many children experience is as long as there are hours in the day.
But all this excitement is actually inhibiting our children's ability to enjoy life and therefore be happy. All this excitement renders young people jaded, not happy. To cite a simple example, many children today would refuse to watch a black and white film — "It's boring," they say. They would even refuse to watch many of the greatest color films if they lacked the amount of excitement — usually meaning violence but also frequently meaning foul language and sexual content — that they are now so used to seeing in films. Plot development is "boring"; blowing up people and buildings is exciting.
That is why the frequent complaint of "I'm bored" is often a sign of a jaded child, i.e., a child addicted to excitement and therefore incapable of enjoying life when not being excited.
All this excitement in their lives bodes poorly for the future happiness of millions of American children. Real life, let alone daily life, will seem so boring to them that they will not be able to enjoy it. And more than a few of them will opt for lives of constant excitement, often in ways destructive to themselves and others.
The solutions are as simple to offer as they may be difficult to enforce. Limit the amount of excitement in your children's lives: the amount of video games, the amount of non-serious television, the amount of music whose only aim is to excite. If they are bored, they will have to remedy that boredom by playing with friends, finding a hobby, talking to a family member, walking the dog, doing chores, reading a book or magazine, learning a musical instrument or foreign language, memorizing state capitals, writing a story or just their thoughts, exercising or playing a sport, or just thinking.
The younger the age from which children are deprived of superficial excitement, the longer they will remain innocent — i.e., not jaded — and capable of real happiness. For as long as they live under your roof, and therefore (hopefully) under your control, you can implement excitement detox. If you do, they may hate you now, but they will thank you later, which is far superior to liking you now and hating you later. And in parenting, that is often the choice we must make.
Dennis Prager hosts a nationally syndicated radio talk show based in Los Angeles. He is the author of four books, most recently "Happiness Is a Serious Problem" (HarperCollins). His Website is www.pragerradio.com.