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My three boys must have been in their early teens.

"I will always love you," I told them over dinner one night. "Even if you were in prison, I would love you." And then I allowed a dramatic pause. "But I wouldn't be proud of you."

They looked up at me from their mounds of spaghetti, solemn and bewildered. I figure that was around the time the two older ones (the three were born in less than 5 years) had exploded through the front door during a shoving match that began outside in the snow. The fight (with handfuls of snow) continued in the front hall of our house.

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"Oh Sarah," sighed a friend of mine, who witnessed it. The dispute began when one of the boys embarrassed the other in front of her two girls. She shot me that unmistakable look of girlfriend empathy – the kind that says she understands my situation, really feels bad about it and yet knows she won't have to deal with it in her life, ever, thank God. When I sent the boys to their rooms to cool off, she left with her girls, probably to go and quietly make doilies or something. I had no idea what girls did to be honest, just that it didn't involve testosterone.

The prison line was a joke, of course. It was my silly way of underscoring my unconditional love for them at the same time as I was trying to develop their conscience. My kids never got into any serious trouble. But they were reaching that age when anyone could see that being a parent was no longer as simple or straightforward as telling them to hold your hand when crossing the road or not to have a cookie before dinner. Like all teenagers, they were very capable of doing stupid, life-threatening and life-wrecking things.

Mostly, though, I was attempting what all parents try to do – inculcate inner happiness in them. It's what we all say – we just want our children to be happy. And the best way to do that is to let them know that you accept and love them for who they are, no matter what they do. I just needed to remind them that while the love was limitless, I still had expectations of them being good, law-abiding people.

Children's sense of joy has become an important part of the current cultural preoccupation with happiness. There are kid-friendly virtual worlds aimed at encouraging self-confidence and an appreciation of the things that create happiness. Merle Bessner in Toronto co-launched BunkiMunki last year, a website for children aged 7 to 13, which allows them to earn friendship badges, record their thoughts in a journal and think about what made them happy each day. "We wanted to help kids this age feel self-empowered and introduce them to the power of positive thinking," Ms. Bessner, a mother of two adult children, says of the site that prohibits real names, pictures or instant messaging.

At the Oprah Lifeclass event in Toronto last month, an educator of needy, troubled children asked Oprah's "spiritual squad" of on-stage experts how she can help her students be happy. "Don't tell them what to do," advised leadership guru Tony Robbins. "Give them the experience of giving to others." Deepak Chopra weighed in: "You can change a child in three ways: with attention, appreciation and affection."

I became a parent before its Buddha-fication, before things like children's yoga and mindfulness workshops. I never heard experts such as Maureen Healy author of Growing Happy Kids, who gushed to me on the phone last week about how "the consciousness on the planet is shifting. Parents are not solely working on the outside of their children, the grades and the expectations. Some of them are meditating with their children."

I became a mother before the task morphed into a serious profession; before $1,500 strollers and before parenting became a verb. I was flying by the seat of my pre-Lululemon sweatpants.

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And one of the things that's good about being older is the perspective you gain on the years when you were a young parent, worried about whether you were doing the right thing.

I realize now that one of the best things I did wasn't buying their favourite toys or packing the lunch boxes and slipping in little "I Love You" notes – okay, to be honest I only did that about half a dozen times because I came to think of it as creepy. It was something far more ordinary. I tried to always be available, emotionally, if not physically, to be as reliable as a peanut-butter-and-jam sandwich.

I was eager to hear about the bad day at school or the good day. I knew their friends and liked to have them around. I was interested in my children's thoughts and what they felt. That connection helped as they got older. They talked to me about many things – worries about girlfriends or troubling events at school or with their friends. Some things I didn't hear at the time, thankfully. They tell me now, though, and while I cringe, I just shake my head, glad that we have all arrived to a level of maturity where we can openly discuss our shared and independent pasts. (I even now admit to smoking pot – once or twice, you understand – in my teens.) The other thing I know is that raising happy, well-adjusted children is sometimes about luck, as much about your efforts as it is about genetics and that teacher they happened to get in Grade 4 or the camp counsellor who introduced them to the joy of a canoe trip. All those books telling you how to be a good parent are nice, but they don't come with guarantees. It's one of the humbling revelations of motherhood – that you cannot and do not have control, that ultimately your children have to be responsible for their own happiness. You really do just do your best.

My boys now – well, they're tall, hairy men – like to rib me about my mothering of years gone by. They like to recite that prison line with great howls of laughter. Which is fantastic. Clearly, it sunk in.

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