Ask a child what he or she really wants from her parents, and you may be surprised by the answer.

Ask a kid what he wants for his birthday, and he’ll come back with a laundry list.

But ask a kid what he really wants from his parents, and you may be surprised by the answer.

That’s what Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute did, as quoted in “The Secret of Happy Families” by Bruce Feiler. Galinsky surveyed a thousand families and asked the children, “If you were granted one wish about your parents, what would it be?”

Most parents guessed that kids would say they wanted time with Mom and Dad.

They were wrong.

The number one wish was to have parents who were less tired and less stressed.

Are you surprised? I certainly was. After all, I would guess that most of the things that stress us out are things we are doing for our children. Special birthday parties, lovingly decorated bedrooms, trips and outings, music lessons and sports. We spend a lot of time and money managing our children’s lives.

It’s done with the best of intentions. Holidays should be special. Birthdays should be unforgettable. We want children who can multiply their talents. We want to enrich and nurture and teach and explore and fill the “unforgiving minute with 60 seconds worth of distance run” (courtesy of Kipling).

But while our kids may appreciate the effort, it’s not what they want. They’d rather trade it in for a parent who can still laugh and smile at the end of the day.

I keep thinking about this study because we have reached the end of another school year and I feel like I’ve been flattened by a school bus. Or like I’ve spent nine months walking to school uphill both ways through five feet of snow. After managing early morning music practice, lunches, PTA, emergency trips to the school to deliver forgotten lunches, homework, concerts, projects and the mounds of paperwork that come home every day, I am staggering into summer like a box of melted crayons.

Happy and stress-free? Ha!

I consider surviving the science fair among my greatest achievements from this past year. In fact, that experience is what made me realize that perhaps I was a little too tired and too stressed.

This was a few months ago, but it is still fresh in my mind because that’s what trauma does to a person. My three school-age children were juggling science fair projects of the most intricate kind, and stayed up late in the night to finish their posters. We had to leave early the following morning to get prints from the copy store. While I scrambled to make lunches, I sent the boys out to the van to clean out the trunk and make room for the giant display boards.

I came out 10 minutes later to find the task abandoned. Instead, all four kids stood on the driveway with their heads tipped back, sniffing the breeze.

“What are you doing?” I huffed. “You didn’t do what I asked. The trunk is still a mess.”

They looked at me in surprise. “But Mom,” they said. “Come smell the air. It’s spring.” In other words: Mom, chill out.

At that moment they didn’t really care about their snazzy science fair posters, or getting to school on time, or cleaning out the trunk. So why would I?

As we head into summer, with its changing rhythms and fresh schedules, we can be mindful that our children crave parents who can manifest joy. It might mean swapping our fancy travel plans in favor of nearby adventure. It might mean easing the clean-house expectations in favor of creative down-time. It might mean cold cereal instead of crepes, store-bought cards instead of handmade and bedrooms with bare walls. All of life is a trade-off.

It’s also important to recognize this modern time. Life moves fast. There are a lot of demands on our time. We are a busy people and we are doing good things. If we choose to be busy, that’s fine, but it should enhance our family life, not detract from it.

Our children need to see that the added details of our lives contribute to our happiness and give them the kind of parents they really want.

Tiffany Gee Lewis lives in St. Paul, Minn., and is the mother of four boys. She blogs at Her email is [email protected]