In 2013, two of Jack Harbaugh’s kids were coaching against each other in the Super Bowl. They had led their respective teams to the NFL promised land, achieving success at the highest level of organized football, and now they were going to play the game their family loved in front of 71,000 people inside the Superdome and more than 160 million viewers at home across the country.
Pretty incredible, yeah? How could a father not be filled with pride and joy?
And Jack absolutely was. He experienced another emotion simultaneously though: sadness. A kind of a pit in his stomach. Why? Because he also knew that very shortly one of his children would lose a Super Bowl… falling short in front of those same 160 million people.
All we want is for our kids to be happy. All of our kids. To have one gain at the expense of the other? Could you design a more vexing predicament for a parent?
Reflecting on the game, Harbaugh would note that a parent is only as happy as their unhappiest child. What a perfect expression of this crazy journey we’re on!
We might love the snow, but if one of our kids is cold and tired, nobody is going to be having any fun. It doesn’t matter if our career is going great—if our kids are struggling in school, we’re not going to feel all that good about the raise we just got or the promotion or the new client. If two of our kids are thriving, but the other has just checked into rehab, we’re going to feel like we’ve totally screwed up as parents.
That old cliche about a chain only being as strong as its weakest link? It’s true in so many areas of life. A Navy SEAL boat crew is only as fast as its slowest member. A football team’s defense is only as good as its worst-tackling player—even one that makes it to the Super Bowl. And a parent is only as happy as their unhappiest child.
An unhappy child does not mean you failed, obviously. Jack Harbaugh is testament to that. But it does mean that empathy should temper pride, not the other way around. It’s also a good reminder that happiness—yours or theirs—should never be the ultimate measure of your work or your worth as a parent.