Can We Teach Children to be Happy?
I am at a school meeting attended by a classroom teacher, a resource teacher, a school administrator, a support worker and myself as a school counsellor.
We are talking about how to better support a student who is struggling with anxiety and anxious behaviour. Any test or performance brings significant belly aches, headaches and paralysis. The student is overwhelmed when doing her homework despite the fact she is easily capable of completing it.
The resource teacher is debriefing everyone on her communication with the family. Understandably, the mother is worried about the behaviour of her child and is seeking ways to support her. Mom's strategy is to talk to her daughter's teacher and minimize the stressors.
"I just want my child to be happy. When my kids are happy, I am happy."
I hear this everywhere. And I say it myself. I wish and pray for the safety and the happiness of all my loved ones. When my loved ones are well, I am well.
There is a problem with this wish and prayer for happiness.
Happiness requires a skill set that is acquired from a great deal of practice. Our brains have evolved over millions of years. Stress and adaptation provided early humans with the tools needed to survive. Most of us think that happiness is the absence of stressors and uncomfortableness. The way we teach our brains to be "happy" alas, is all about adding stressors and uncomfortableness. The stress needs to be just slightly above our reach, not overwhelming and large. It has to be manageable. Too much stress leads to overwhelm or trauma and shuts down our capacity to learn and take care of ourselves.
What we don't talk about is the fact that too little stress leads to the same thing - we shut down our capacity to learn and take care of ourselves. The more we solve our problems, the more we train our brains to take care of our own needs, the more likely we will be to feel happy.
Our brains and bodies need countless experiences of stress and uncomfortableness that gets managed through our own resources. If an adult or a child has a low tolerance for stress or discomfort, it means they require more practice at being uncomfortable and successfully managing their discomfort.
When we ask all the people around our children to minimize stressors, we are guaranteeing our children will not get the practice they need to feel well.
When we give the message that feeling good is more important than taking care of your discomforts, we are guaranteeing our children will not get the practice the need to feel well.
There are a number of significant cultural norms that prevented children and adults the practice of managing their discomforts - less face to face interactions, less unstructured play and an increase in electronic media. All of these cultural norms impact the very parts of our brain that are required to practice resilience, critical thinking, delayed gratification and social interactions.
Yes, you can teach children to be happy, but it is by doing the exact opposite of what you think you need to do. Love is important. Care is important. But it is not enough. Children must practice getting uncomfortable, failing and practicing some more. The best way to teach your child happiness, is to provide plenty of practice at being uncomfortable, and accountable for their own experiences.
Here are simple suggestions that can help you train your brain for happiness:
1. Share Home Responsibilities: Every member of the family should have daily responsibilities. It might be picking up toys, making the bed, washing dishes, or cleaning toilets, washing windows and family vehicles. Notice my suggestions are all about manual labour, because we know that manual labour helps us calm down. Home responsibilities should not receive monetary payment.
2. Share Your Mealtimes: Our bodies are used to sharing meals in collectives. Sit down, eliminate all electronic distractions and be present. Model curiosity, eye contact and focused listening.
3. Model Resilience: What you think and what you do is what you teach. Children learn moral behaviour through their feelings and their body. If they see and feel the adults around them manage their feelings and worries in a positive way, they will learn to do the same.
4. Designate Electronic Free Time: Decide as a family to designate an hour of each day avoiding all electronic media.
5. Move: Walk, bike, swim, play, move.