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Happiness at any cost…

There has been a lot in the press recently about children these days expecting to be happy at all times.  Parents, trying their best to do what is right, are challenging teachers in a way previously unknown when their little darling is “unhappy”. 

A maths teacher was quoted in The Observer last Sunday saying that he corrected a child’s homework, pointing out that a nought was in the wrong place.  The child watched as the teacher changed the answer (corrected the answer) and smiling, changed it back saying “Thank you, but I prefer it where it was.”  Mad mathematical renegade or spoilt brat?

As a parent we all want happy children… but ultimately what is really going to make your child experience long term happiness?  When do we need to step in and teach our children that they can’t always be right and that life isn’t always happy?  When do they learn that they don’t always get to be first, selected for the football team or the lead part in the class assembly?  It is a vital lesson without doubt, and one that needs to be assimilated before entry in to the Big Bad World where there isn’t always going to be a mummy to take the naughty person to task for not recognising (perhaps well hidden – or truly absent) genius.

I do understand that having a happy child is vital, but I wonder if ultimately little Johnny is going to thank you for this effort?  Research shows that children who are never corrected or thwarted actually have lower self esteem than their more robust challenged counterparts.  Life is as much about managing disappointment as learning to manage success.  Realistically, in a class of 30 children, your little darling is unlikely to come first and 29 times more likely to come second or lower.  And someone has to come last!  Surely childhood is where you learn that, safe in the knowledge that you have parents who love you no matter what and will comfort you and teach you that not being The Angel Gabriel in the Christmas production is actually not The End of The World.

If, as a mother, you beg the teacher to remark homework or add your child to the team roster or change the casting for the school nativity play making your child happy again, if only for a little bit, what lesson are you teaching your child?  Complain and you get what you want, perhaps. Is that true of life?  Perhaps a little bit, but generally speaking life is pretty much a meritocracy and if you aren’t best suited to the role, you won’t get it.  And how hollow a victory would you experience if you were in the starting line up of a big match only because your mummy made the coach put you in?  I cannot tell you how many painfully shy children I have watched squirming with embarrassment, unable to speak when called upon to do so, after their mother has negotiated them in to a role in the school play they aren’t happy with.  Surely that is a far worse fate for the child than being cast as part of a nice crowd scene where you can lurk at the back and don’t have to speak?

As a parent, you have to moderate your expectations to fit your child.  If you have a terribly uncoordinated chatter box who loves to show off… perhaps they would be selected for a part in the play but left off the netball squad.  Should you perhaps trust the teacher to make that decision for you, rather than barrel in and take them to task?  We had a situation at my children’s school recently where a mother insisted her daughter take part in the “gifted and talented programme” arguing that it would only be fair if everyone had a “go” at being Gifted and Talented.  This child was also told that she couldn’t take the exam for the grammar school (the 11+) because she was “out of catchment” although a patent lie.  The poor child repeated this to anyone who would listen and watched as people nodded their heads in pity more than agreement, understanding that an untruth had been told to her to save her feelings.  What does this teach her daughter?  Will she thank her mother when she is older? 

We surely should be thinking of our children’s happiness in a much broader sense rather than immediate disappointment and upset.  To teach a child to accept the rough with the smooth and understand their own limitations is vital.  “Life is short and  brutal and then you die” was my father’s response if I ever complained about any perceived injustice – perhaps rather old school, but I got the message.  We need to celebrate our children’s achievements and I fear that when they really do work hard and achieve, the subsequent joy may be diminished by the previous devaluation.  Encourage them by all means, but be realistic and understand that you may be (should be!) slightly biased when it comes to your own little darling.  That your adoring, uncritical, maternal view of your child may be best kept in the home, though.  You can be a one person cheering squad for your own children behind closed doors, but you also need to be able to be a shoulder for them to cry on when they are unhappy.  Without sickness we wouldn’t appreciate health and without sadness we wouldn’t appreciate joy.  Everything in moderation makes for a happier more confident child in the end, I think.

Posted on Friday, March 20, 2009 at 06:38PM by Registered CommenterLucy Symons | CommentsPost a Comment | References6 References

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    Football is really 1 of the largest sports in America. It has a major following.
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