MEDELLÍN — A recurring theme one hears from families coming to school is that, above all, they just want their children to be happy. And when you ask parents what happiness means, they'll say children need more time to play and to have fun — and not be forced to study and think about school all day long.

We need to overhaul the definition of happiness, and I suggest we reconsider three elements here:

1. There is no playing at school - While teaching does happen at the appointed and appropriate hours, as in any learning process, and even while following specific instructions from their teachers, children are constantly playing at being scientists in their science class, writers in language class, engineers during physics and citizens while interacting in groups in the playground. Certainly, schools are a simulation of reality and of life and thus, a place par excellence for all kinds of fun and games.

2. Work goes against fun and formative development - There are indeed absurd examples of school work, like the ones dad ends up doing alone at night, or 100 repetitive exercises that must be done at record speed. Still, we should understand that schoolwork is meant to build the skills and habits of independent work. Developing autonomy and discipline at work is a key to success. In higher education, about 80% of learning is done autonomously, outside classes or seminars. Likewise, later on at work, there will be few occasions when the boss will sit and teach an employee his or her assigned tasks. On the contrary, jobs typically involve being given challenging tasks and being expected to carry them out to meet set objectives. So it is never too early to start working alone, especially when science has shown that habits learned in childhood are excellent forecasts of the adult and professional one may expect to become in the future.

3. Happiness is an objective - Parents' ideas of happiness may differ from their children's, and of course different families imagine happiness differently. But either way, it cannot be thought of as an objective, but rather a consequence of taking good decisions. And we must encourage critical thinking in children that helps enable them to correctly choose their profession, partner and even the next president. Forging this critical thinking needs rigor, constant work and perseverance. Otherwise we shall be teaching children a kind of false happiness, where they do as they please amid a twisted idea freedom. Worse, they may come to expect others to decide for them, in order to avoid suffering.

The current, collective discourse on happiness is disconcerting, for it suggests we are more concerned with immediate well-being and temporary smiles for our children. Instead, education with a purpose, with emphasis on forging autonomy and developing critical thought, should be what unites parents and school. Thus together we can forge an individual and collective future that is sustainable, socially-minded and durable.

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