I love this picture because it reminds me how difficult it is for parents to know what makes their kids happy.

This moment was right after my son did a great solo performance in Chicago. It was downtown, so we stayed at a swanky hotel across from the performance center, and we went back to the hotel for lunch and then swimming.

Who wouldn’t love that? But somehow, he was able to be a grouch. I told him he couldn’t play hide and seek (the hotel had already yelled at him once). And I told him he couldn’t eat bread (he’s allergic). But the real problem,  I think, is that he was hungry, and fancy restaurants take a long time to bring food.

My experience of parenting is that it’s difficult to see what really makes a kid happy and what really makes a kid sad. You have to look more at the core of who they are.

My ESFP son’s driving desire is to be with people having fun.  So the first thing I ask myself is: “Are there enough people for him?” Seriously, he needs zero alone time.

But at some point I think the times he tells me he’s happy and the times he tells me he’s sad are like little puzzles, and I have to figure out what he means.

When we assess our own moods, reporting sadness is as conflicted as reporting happiness.

The happiest country is Switzerland  and the most unhappy country is Greece. But most people everywhere report that they are happy, and there is little difference among populations aside from outliers like Russia where there is an inverse relationship between how bad their lives are and how good their literature is. They are working hard to preserve their literary dominance.

Everywhere else, people are basically happy. Because that is the human condition. Yes, life is really difficult. But we have some crazy chip in our brains that makes us believe that life is getting better. We wake up every day thinking the best is yet to come.

Or maybe it’s not so crazy. Because we can’t change most things that are difficult for us. Like, we can’t breathe under water. We can’t survive without nutrients. We hurt each other. So we tell ourselves that even though life is hard and the world is dangerous, life is good. Whatever we have is good. It’s a survival mechanism.

Why does your kid love school? What else could the kid possibly be comparing it to? One of the most difficult things to do as an adult is figure out what you want to do with your time. So of course it’s difficult for kids, too. And it’s definitely difficult for kids to imagine any alternative to school when the kids have never even seen it.

Let’s say your kid loves her teacher. It’s no surprise that she loves her teacher. Her teacher is the adult paying the most attention to her if attention is measured by quantity not quality, which has been the measurement system for all of human evolution except the last 20 years or so. Kids naturally love the adult paying attention to them. It’s another survival mechanism.

Some kids don’t love their teacher, but then the parents talk about “it’s a bad year” not “school is a bad system.” Which means that the kid still assumes school is good.

Kids take cues from parents.

When I stopped forcing my son to do homework, my son started complaining about school. When we agree to abide by school rules and school customs we show our kids that we believe school is good, so they believe school is good. It’s why eight-year-olds don’t come home from church one day and tell their Christian parents they want to be Muslim.

When I helped my son make a costume for the school sing-along, my son said he liked doing the sing-along. When I told my son I don’t want to go to school reading night because our family reads every night anyway, he sensed I had lost faith in school. He jumped on the bandwagon right away.  “Yeah. School reading night is dumb for our family!”

What I’m telling you is that most kids will tell you they like school. Because kids like what you put in front of them. Do you know what determines what kids like to eat? What their mothers eat. Kids adapt to liking what they perceive their mothers like, and what their mothers feed them.

So back to the hotel.

He said, “I hate this hotel.”

My first thought was, “Try staying at a Best Western.” But I didn’t say anything.

We ate. We swam. And at the pool he said, “Mom! I love this hotel so much! Let’s come back.”