By Emma Button
Simple as it may be, achieving a level of happiness is something that often presents a challenge in this modern age. Never in history has the wellbeing of humankind been so widely discussed. Sometimes, when we talk about happiness, it sounds a lot like the main components of mental health. It is also easy to feel helpless when it comes to our children’s mental health and wellbeing when we look around and feel the weight of scary events, statistics and trends bearing down on us.
Fortunately, parents and teachers have a lot of power when it comes to their child’s mental health and resulting happiness. Indeed, many parents will say their one wish for their child’s future is for them to be happy. So how do we foster and support this well-intentioned wish? There are endless books, blogs and online resources that give hints and tips about promoting happiness in children, but I wanted to share a few that I consider key from my experience.
Routine and Structure (But Not Too Much)
Children thrive when they ‘know where they are,’ both physically and emotionally. I am a strong advocate of clear routines and boundaries for children. However, in recent years I have seen an alarming increase in children with overly regimented lives, where every minute is planned and accounted for. Much of this appears like an extension of school, with entire weekends taken up with clubs and tutoring. Children are then constrained in a number of ways: unable to express their interests organically in play; and unable to develop those key skills of being bored and learning to seek out their own entertainment with support or guidance.
Allow Plenty of Time for Play
Children must have time to play and explore their interests. This is a must, at school and at home. Music, dance and physical exertion are all excellent stimulants for the brain to produce endorphins, the so-called ‘happy chemicals’. Again, this doesn’t have to be overly regimented and planned; it can be done in a much more relaxed and organic way.
Provide a Physically and Emotionally Safe Environment
Children need to know that mistakes are ok and that failure is an acceptable, even necessary part of life. Equally, children must have space in their lives to express their emotions, be they happy, sad or angry. They must also see that adults have these emotions too. We are the role models for our children; in every aspect of our lives our behaviour informs and models theirs. What they see and hear in relation to the adults in their lives, children will project onto their own interactions and emotions. Even in this modern age, we still have children who face physical harm at home. There is no way a child can feel happy in a home where there is fear or worry about consequences or punishment.
Time with People They Love
I have had so many conversations with children about the joy they feel when they are with their parents and loved ones; talking about weekends and holidays spent together, they are alive with happiness. A hug from a parent means the world, but an afternoon together, engaged in the interests of the child means even more. Children particularly love to hear what you love and admire about them, especially when it is a story about themselves. The day they were born, their first day at school or another important event are all lovely topics to talk about with your child, and they will be a captive audience.
I believe achieving an adult state of happiness is the direct result of a childhood spent exploring the interests and experiences that bring you happiness. We can all agree that our children deserve a future that is successful and secure, but it must also be a happy future for them. At Wellington, we encourage pupils to pursue happiness with the same determination and ambition they will apply to their education and other life goals. Because, we believe, this one is the most important goal of all.
Emma Button is Founding Head of Early Years at Wellington College International Shanghai