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The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness

Dr. Edward Hallowell
Oct. 5, 2010

What do your really want for your children? It's probably not another soccer trophy or star upon your chore list! Most parents, if they linger over the question, will answer that more than anything else they want their children to be happy. If we take certain steps, we can actually make this happen. But those steps don't include "teaching" our children how to be happy. Rather, to help their children turn into happy, moral, connected adults, parents need to encourage specific activities and actions. Research has proved that parents and teachers can greatly increase the chances that their children and students will grow up to be happy, responsible adults by instilling certain qualities that might not seem of paramount importance but in fact are. These are inner qualities such as optimism, playfulness, a can-do attitude, and connectedness.

While traditional advice urges parents to instill discipline and a strong work ethic, this can backfire when put into practice. Discipline and hard work matter, but the engine of a happy life runs better on the power of connection and play rather than on the power of fear and guilt.

The ability to create and sustain joy is often not thought of as a skill that can be taught in the same way that, say, learning to be good winners and good losers can be taught through sports competition. Teaching our children how to create and sustain joy is even more important but is often overlooked. So, to help parents encourage their children to learn the necessary skills, I have created a 5-step program that is based in research and my experience of what children need to thrive.

In this five step program, each step leads to the next in a cycle that endures, I hope, throughout life. These steps are:

1. CONNECTION:   Connection, in the form of unconditional love from an adult, is the most important point in the cycle and is the single most important childhood root of adult happiness. Other types of connections - with friends, school, religion, extended family - can create an unshakable foundation on which you can build an entire life. Connection fosters a feeling of security and safety which instills courage and the desire to take risks in the world or a "can do" attitude. This ability to tackle anything leads to optimism which, research has shown, is one of the most reliable predictors of adult happiness as well as one of the most reliable protectors against depression and despair.

2. PLAY: The "work" of childhood is play. Play builds dreams, the imagination, teaches problem solving and cooperation. Play also teaches the ability to tolerate frustration. Most important of all, play generates joy and becomes its own reward. Through play at its best we learn about an important life concept - that of "flow". The more a person, child or adult, can find activities in which he is completely, happily engrossed (in flow), the happier the person will be day after day.

3. PRACTICE: Adults know the importance of practice. But how did we learn that? Through experience. A child who plays will soon learn the power of practice -think about how many children can ride a bike on the first try! And think of how many children learned to ride with the help of someone older. Practice not only helps children get better at what they are trying, it also helps them learn how to receive help, teaching, or coaching. Finally, with practice comes discipline and, one hopes, mastery.

4. MASTERY: After a certain amount of practice and discipline, a child will experience a great feeling of mastery. "I can do it" and "Wow!" are the cries of mastery. Few feelings in life are any better than that.  The roots of self-esteem lie not in praise but in mastery. When a child masters something she couldn't do before, her self esteem naturally rises, whether she receives any praise or not. If you want your child to have a high sense of self-esteem, don't go out of your way to praise her; go out of your way to make sure she experiences mastery in many different ways.  With mastery comes not only self-esteem by also confidence, leadership skills, initiate, and an enduring desire to work hard. You work in part to experience that unbeatable feeling of mastery again.

5. RECOGNITION: Mastery leads naturally to recognition and approval by a larger group. As a child grows up, each act of mastery leads to recognition by an ever wider circle of people.

It is important that the child feel valued and recognized for who he or she actually is. As Alice Miller pointed out in The Drama of the Gifted Child, many children, particularly clever ones, can recognize what people want of them and can fall into the trap of people-pleasing while losing a feeling for who they are. To prevent this, children need to be recognized - and valued - for who they really are.

Completing the circle, recognition by, and connection to, a larger group leads to moral behavior.

These five steps logically lead, one to the next, and back around to the start - connection. The benefits of self-esteem, confidence and joy grow spontaneously out of the process. It is a cycle that cannot be cut short (you cannot leave out play, for example) and you can't teach the natural results of the cycle. I can't tell you how many parents want to teach their children moral behavior or supply their children with self-esteem. This approach is well meaning, but it doesn't work because it is artificial. You cannot tell a person to "just be happy". They must have learned all of the steps it takes to sustain lifelong joy.

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