A few weeks ago, my husband had work commitments during the day and the weather was lousy. It was just warm enough to make all the beautiful Wisconsin snow melt into piles of muddy soup, yet just cold enough that playing outdoors for too long was unappealing. As I looked at my kids across the breakfast table, I realized that we could either spend all day inside and bicker, or find an alternative activity that everyone would enjoy.
“Kids,” I started, after I grabbed their attention for a fleeting nanosecond. “I know it still feels like winter but today let’s go to the Milwaukee County Zoo.”
“HOOOOOORRAYYYYY” the room erupted in raucous screams. “I’ve been wanting to go to the zoo forever!” my oldest son, Alex, announced. (he tends to speak in hyperbole.)
“OK guys, I know it’s cold and the ride will be long, but we can make a day of it,” I explained. The zoo was about an hour from our house. “We can see all the indoor exhibits and have lunch when we get to the zoo.”
What ensued was a flurry of activity where I could only see three blond mops of hair flying through the house as my children ran in circles filling their backpacks full of toys and books that they thought that they might need during the short commute to the zoo. My daughter collected her largest blanket, three plastic ponies, a Barbie, four books, almost a whole box of raisins, a sippy cup of water, two purses, a stuffed turtle, one dolly, and a small monkey. Apparently she thought that we needed to bring a zoo to the zoo.
My sons brought a few books and their iPads, begrudgingly acknowledging that I wouldn’t let them “plug in” for the full 2 hours that we were in the car.
After we got in our sweaters and pants and coats and warmest outerwear, we got in the car and were on the way. We didn’t leave the house until noon, but the kids were excited to eat lunch as soon as we arrived at the zoo. Once the radio was playing and two of three children drifted off to sleep, I relaxed and hoped that we would have a fantastic day.
But shortly after arriving at our destination, things didn’t turn out as planned. When we walked through the zoo’s main welcome center, we noticed that all of the restaurants and concession stands were closed, including the ice-laden sidewalk vendors. As soon as we saw this, an immediate chorus of “Mom, I’m hungry!” rose from the bellies of my children.
The animals, as well, seemed to be hiding from the cold. The first exhibit we passed – which should have housed the penguins – was completely empty. Apparently Wisconsin’s version of cold air isn’t adequate for Arctic creatures. The Children’s Zoo was a desolate collection of jungle gyms and empty animal cages with one indoor enclosure with a few lonely cows. Though we waited, the planned milking exhibit didn’t happen at the specified time because of lack of participants.
As we ran from indoor enclosure to indoor enclosure (looking for sources of food the whole time) we caught glimpses of the animals that were still brave enough to linger outdoors: the lion, an elephant, a leopard, and a polar bear. Even the moose were huddling together near the stone wall of the faux mountain. When we finally found the tall house where the giraffes live for the winter, I was thrilled to see a vending machine so we could at least get a snack to tide us over until dinner. Alex and Will ran up to the glowing “M&M” sign as if they had found Mecca. With a huge smile on my face, I opened my purse and pulled out. . . a twenty. And about fifty pennies. I started to break out in a sweat as I searched every pocket and finally found a crumpled $1 bill in the recesses of my back jean pocket, which was enough to buy 1 packet of M&Ms for four of us to share.
Eventually we made it to see several other animals and then back to the car with frozen fingers, tingling toes, and rumbling stomachs. Although we were cold, tired, and hungry (excluding the 8 chocolate candies apiece) I thought we had a relatively successful afternoon. The kids seemed happy and engaged and we would have something to laugh about later.
But when we got home, I heard my children recounting the day to my husband:
“. . . and we didn’t get to see the African elephant!”
“. . . and there wasn’t even anything at the children’s zoo!”
“. . . I am soooooo hungry! We didn’t get any lunch!”
“. . . .the car ride was so long!”
As I listened to the chorus of complaints, I realized that I had spent all day trying to make my kids happy and I had failed miserably. Despite two hours in the car, my best efforts, and now a dull headache, they were still in their chronic state of dissatisfaction that seems to accompany almost anything that isn’t electronic. I realized that instead of being a mommy-entertainment-factory, I needed to teach my kids to be happy on their own.
As Abraham Lincoln prophetically said, “People are just as happy as they make up their minds to be.”
So I did a little research. How could we teach our kids to be happy? I knew that these early years where habits are forming and personalities are blossoming are crucial to the development of lifelong traits. I was glad to learn that two of the things that we were working on teaching the kids – a healthy sense of gratitude and generosity – were associated with increased lifelong happiness. But I saw a lot of areas where we could improve things as well. For example, cultivating a sense of optimism is important to teaching happiness. If we celebrate our children’s successes while also allowing them to learn from their failures, they will be more likely to grow into self-confident and optimistic adults. Also, I could do a lot better job modeling positive self-talk. My kids need to hear me say a lot more of “I did a great job today” instead of “these jeans make my butt look fat.” By being a more positive example, I can help their own inner voices speak to them in a more reassuring, positive, and happy way.
Finally, we can teach them to find joy in the little things, even when everything isn’t perfect.
As I was putting the kids to bed that evening, I asked them about their favorite part about the zoo. They reliably told me about the monkeys, bats, and the scary lion. When my son asked me what my favorite part of the trip was, my answer wasn’t as simple:
“Remember the part when we were in the giraffe house eating M&Ms? Alex was sitting on one side of me, Will was sitting on the other, and Kalli was sitting on my lap. Our stomachs were all grumbling but you were being really sweet and making sure that everyone got the same amount of M&Ms. The giraffes that we were watching were tall, graceful, beautiful creatures. It was cold outside but the warmth I felt with the three of you surrounding me was better than any blanket that I could ever buy. The whole trip was crazy, but it was worth it to be there that moment with you.”
It’s the little things that cultivate happiness, and I could feel another sprout blossoming in my heart in the giraffe house that day. Despite the lessons we learned, next time I think I’ll carry some small change and snacks in my purse.
Or maybe we’ll just go to the pet store.

Kristin Seaborg is a practicing pediatrician, parent of three rambunctious children, and author of The Sacred Disease: My Life with Epilepsy. Kristin writes about perspectives on pediatrics and parenting on her Common Sense Motherhood blog (link http://www.kristinseaborg.com/blog) and advocates for epilepsy awareness through speaking and teaching others about the impact of seizures.

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