There is nothing most parents want more for their children than happiness, and nothing that causes them greater pain than their children’s unhappiness. Nevertheless, the role that parents play in their children’s happiness is not straightforward, especially as children’s needs and experiences become more complex.
Last year, as I was travelling around the country talking about happiness and the skills and insights that support it, I was struck by how vulnerable many people feel when it comes to their children’s happiness. They are clear about their desire for that happiness. They are not clear how best to support it.
When it comes to happiness, children are not simply blank slates waiting to absorb our latest theories; they can also be our teachers. Watch children who are absorbed in an activity, or open to the awe and wonder of something around them, or are eating, laughing, singing, hugging or chatting with unselfconscious delight, and it is clear that happiness is a very natural experience. But the experiences of frustration, disappointment and inner and outer conflict are also natural, and it is in showing through easy, everyday example how to deal with those less welcome moments that parents can play a tremendous role in guiding and developing their child’s inner wellbeing.
How parents think about happiness already makes a difference. Most people are inclined to associate happiness with pleasure and things going well. Getting what we want, when we want it, may seem essential to happiness. But that is a very limited view of what happiness is that may also give moments of “not-happiness” more weight and drama than they possibly deserve. Listening to a child scream when they don’t get what they want is horrible. (It’s even more horrible watching an adult have a two-year-old tantrum.) Yet the curious thing is, if we don’t learn to endure and survive our inevitable frustrations, it becomes extremely difficult to develop a meaningful sense of inner stability and the experiences of confidence and optimism that come with that. When our own limited needs rule us, it is also difficult to wake up to the reality of the people around us – especially when their needs are in direct conflict with our own. (I need you to come home now. You want to stay and play.)
Learning through everyday experiences that you can survive conflict and frustration, while also waking up gradually to the reality of the people around you, is essential to developing a less fragile view of happiness. So is learning to “take in” what you actually have without focusing constantly on what you don’t have. Parents know how painful it is to be accused of not doing that one final thing in the face of having done ten other things. (“You didn’t buy me a green man…You never…”) Hearing that rising whine, it is hard for parents not to feel sorry for themselves as well as mystified as to how they could have raised this thankless child! But recognising what you already have, taking that in and not jumping ahead to focus on the next unfulfilled desire, is something countless adults also have difficulty with. In a society like ours, the experience of “enough” can be tough for children to grasp. Feeling “good enough” can seem especially elusive. But this is something that really is best taught and learned through example, so in deepening your children’s grasp and vision of happiness, you cannot fail to grow more reliably content yourself.
There are other factors, too, that influence children’s emotional wellbeing. Their capacity for resilience and even happiness varies according to genes and temperament. Nevertheless, every child benefits from routines that are balanced, spacious and relatively predictable, with lots of time for unstructured play as well as rest. Children don’t need constant external stimulation or a barrage of choices. They do need opportunities for inner adventure through experiences that engage them with their physical environment, their developing creativity and one another. And they need parents willing to learn alongside them, seeing what is already working well and what is not, and making good-humoured adjustments accordingly.
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