The song “You Are My Sunshine” is a perennial hit with the five and under crowd, sung in mommy-and-me classes, taught in preschools, and covered by countless kid bands. But I cringe every time I hear it. Sure, the melody is sweet, but the lyrics? They’re pretty messed up when you stop to think about them. Here’s the first verse, the most well known one of the song.
If I sing this to my kids, I’m confessing that my life is the pits without them, that they’re the only thing that brings me joy, and that leaving me would take away all of my happiness. I think a lot of therapy sessions must begin this way because that’s some heavy baggage to lay on a kid’s shoulders. Also, it shouldn’t be true.
I want to send my kids the opposite message — that they’re not responsible for making me, or anyone else, happy. They’re responsible for creating their own happiness, and they can’t rely on someone else to give them their sunshine. They’ve got that light within themselves, and they decide how brightly it will shine.
I hope they choose people in their lives who help them dazzle, and stay away from people who dim their glimmer. And I hope they understand that they have the power to affect other people’s lives in the same way. But I also want them to understand that’s not the same thing as creating light for someone else. That’s actually an impossible task. They can reach down a hand to a friend or partner who’s in a deep dark place, but they’ll never pull them out unless the person who’s hurting puts in the work to climb out on their own.
I don’t want my kids to think that their job is to sacrifice themselves to make someone else happy, especially if that person isn’t making an effort to help themselves, too. So, “You Are My Sunshine,” laden with messages of passive aggressive guilt and unfair expectations, is one song that doesn’t get sung in my house.
But, man oh man, it’s a catchy tune, so I’ve made up some new lyrics that are more fitting for my life with children.
To sing when I’m feeling sentimental:
To sing when I’m feeling not so sentimental:
Let’s make up even more lyrics for our kids that are honest, sweet, or funny. Let’s give them boundaries, encouragement, and love. But, please, let’s not give them guilt, or the singular burden of making us happy.