the happiness myth

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

the happiness myth

The happiness myth.


Nearly every parent I see tells me that they just want their child to be happy. This is a perfectly understandable but curiously misplaced wish. Happiness is something that cannot be acquired or pursued in a concrete sense. It is more a fleeting sense of well-being that arises as a result of engaging with something else. A childhood is rarely an endless series of happy events; in fact I would argue that being a child is full of stressful events and difficult challenges. Furthermore if our children had continuously happy lives how would they be able to deal with the inevitable arrival of ‘unhappiness’.


There are further problems with this issue of happiness namely how we interpret unhappiness. Is it something we should be concerned about, in the sense of it being some sort of indicator of mental distress? Or is it something we should just ignore, in the sense of it being a part of life? These questions are made more complex by the way in which ‘happiness’ has become a must have accessory. Browse anyone’s instagram or facebook account and you will see how important it is to show everyone how ‘happy’ you are.


This presents us parents with a problem. If our children are covertly being signed up to the pursuit of ‘happiness’ how do we intervene and reconfigure them so to speak.


One of the things we need to understand is difference between happiness and pleasure and the second is we need to understand the difference between unhappiness as a symptom of something troubling and when it is the result of frustration or disappointment.


I have stated above that happiness is a fleeting sense of well-being that arises as a result of engaging with something else. It is not the same as the pleasure you get from gratification. So if your child says they will be ‘very happy’ if you buy them the latest smartphone they are talking about gratification not happiness. Conversely it is not a sign of an impending psychological disorder if they tell you they will be ‘very unhappy’ if you don’t buy them one. That is just frustration or disappointment.


If your child seems lethargic, low and seemingly unable to derive much enjoyment from life then they may very well be unhappy in the proper psychological sense and you need to try to do something about it.

You can do a bit of detective work by asking their school and you can try and talk to them about it. If they are unwilling to open up you could try involving a professional.


My view is that we need to focus a lot less on how to make them happy and more on the following

  1. How to develop a good work ethic
  2. How to help them become emotionally and psychologically resilient.
  3. Help them learn how to make and sustain healthy relationships.


These are the things that will help them become healthy adults.

If this topic is of interest, I discuss it in much more detail in my book which is coming out in mid May 2017called, We need to talk, how to raise resilient teenagers. (Vermillion)

screen time

What do we do about children and screen time ?


From time to time articles appear warning us that children and teenagers are spending more and more time on their screens. This is followed by a quote from an expert alerting us to the terrible dangers of prolonged screen time and strongly recommending we limit it. When I read these comments I sometimes wonder whether these experts have ever encountered a child engrossed in his/her screen and tried to get them to stop. Many happily switch it off at the first time of asking but an awful lot more create mayhem at the merest suggestion that they turn it off. Therein lies one of the problems, which parent wants to spent large parts of the evening/weekend policing and arguing about turning off screens. I don’t think the fear of your children contracting a form of digital dementia in the future is persuasive enough. Most parents I see already know they need to keep control of it but the whole subject is more nuanced and a lot more complex than it appears.


What is so appealing about screen time and incidentally parenting is that it’s like giving a child shot of elephant tranquilizer. Put a screen in front of them and they immediately become placid and docile, sometimes to the point of appearing comatose. For stressed out parents what’s not to like about this?


For example you are taking the children to see granny in the country. It’s a 2 hour drive. What better way to travel than to load up the children, load up the ipads and headphones and off you go. A stress free journey is moreorless guaranteed. Ok there is the minor inconvenience of withdrawal symptoms when you arrive but that’s a small price to pay for a stress free journey. Yes I know playing I Spy is more interactive, challenging and creative but I can also guarantee that after half an hour the children will be arguing and fighting and your blood pressure will be rising.


Despite the attraction of having quiet docile children there are three important arguments why parents need to get on board with this topic. Children need to learn how to develop and manage relationships because we know that secure relationships with family and friends are a more important for their well being than anything else. Every hour spent immersed in looking at screens is one less hour they are interacting with others and an opportunity is lost to enhance those relational skills.

Children need space and time free from stimulation to process their experience. In time it helps them develop the capacity to reflect and evaluate their experience. If every waking minute they are locked to a screen they are being deprived of this important of psychological developments.

Screens are regressive in the sense that they nurture a thirst for instant gratification. As parents we are trying to teach them the opposite and it’s a difficult enough task as it is. We need to stack the odds a bit more in our favour.



So what do we do?

Lets start with thinking about a how we might deal with the issue as a family. Having a plan is a lot better than dealing with situations piecemeal.

I suggest having a cut off time for all electronics at home. Either disable the internet or ask the children to hand in their electronics. Don’t make it negotiable and don’t make exceptions. Once it has become embedded in family life you will have much less aggravation.


Don’t allow children under 16 to use a computer in their bedroom. If they have homework or other things to do on the computer it can be done in another area. The argument that they need privacy to face time their friends doesn’t stack up. They see them everyday. What do they need to say that is so important that it can’t wait till morning. Any arguments about this will be more about the need for instant gratification than the importance of the subject matter.


Don’t allow electronic devices at the meal table, at family gatherings or family outings. They disrupt the connectedness between members of the family. This time is precious for many reasons but from my point of view it is also where so much is learned about relationships and interacting. Keep it screen free.


Mobile phones come under this umbrella. It’s my view that there is no compelling reason why a child under 16 should have a smartphone. They have computers at school and probably computers at home. It’s radical I know but what do they need the smartphone for? Snapchat, Youtube, videos, games, Facebook, if they have an account. This is a colossal waste of time. Is the school day not challenging or interesting enough for all this stuff to be put on hold? I have heard the social exclusion argument but it’s not compelling. I have met many children whose families have decided for one reason or another not to have a TV but they haven’t felt socially excluded at school. The fashion accessory argument isn’t worth commenting on.



There is a technological revolution going on and it corrodes family life and relationships, we need to try as best we can to keep it from swamping family life more than it already does. Make a plan and stick to it. It will be worth it in the long run.


What’s the deal with children lying ?


There has been some discussion in the papers recently about the notion that children lying can be a result of too strict parenting. This raises some interesting questions about the role of lying in childhood. How it comes about and what purpose it might have for the child who lies? If we go a little deeper it also raise questions about the purpose of punishments.


Lets start with the rather obvious issue that children lie to avoid having to suffer consequences of their actions. It is obvious that the more severely their infractions are dealt with the more they might be tempted to lie to avoid the punishment. The question that arises from this is why a parent might want to deal with childhood misdemeanors so severely. In other words what is the thinking behind it. There are two main drivers to my mind. One is that a parent may have been severely dealt with as a child and is merely repeating previous behaviour, the other is they aim to teach them a lesson they will never forget. The hope is that the next time they are tempted to repeat the misdemeanor they will remember the punishment and desist. This is understandable but misguided. Childhood is a series of learning experiences over a long period of time. A child is not going to learn much from an experience if their main feeling in response to it is fear rather than reflection. So my main argument against very strict parenting is simply that it doesn’t work. At best it fosters mindless obedience and at worst it is a breeding ground for seething resentment. Neither of these traits are ones we would want for our children.


Punishments (or consequences) are useful for one thing; they alleviate the child’s guilt nothing more. They do not teach them anything in the short term or the long term. It’s the dialogue surrounding the behaviour that makes the difference.


The more interesting question is why children lie in the under normal parenting regimes. The first thing to note is that it not a sign of impending delinquency nor of moral bankruptcy. Most children’s self esteem is quite fragile and sometimes their sense of self cannot take the truth hence the need to avoid it i.e. lie. In these instances lying might be an indication of low self-esteem or lack of confidence. In which case the last thing you need to be doing is making them feel worse.


The other major reason why children lie is because of developmental immaturity. A painful consequence of growing up is having to face up to a world where they cannot do what they want or have what they want. Lying can be a sign that the child is having difficulty managing ‘reality’. These situations need more parental thought and understanding than just straight punishments.


A final word about teenagers, most of them lie at some point or to put it more accurately their grasp of the ‘truth’ is somewhat elastic depending on what they do or don’t want to do. It will depend on whether they want you to know what they have been up to, whether they want you to know who they have been with? It is more driven by the developmental pressure to separate from you and have a private world than an abuse of trust. However if you are worried about your teenager lying it is better to focus on the potential for a breakdown of trust than resort to heavy handed punishments.

Do children gain anything useful from failing?

Do children gain anything useful from failure?


We would all agree that encouraging and praising our children is a critical part of parenting. We know it contributes to them feeling good about themselves and it gives them confidence. So far so good, but how do we think about their failures and the whole issue of failing.


This is a more complicated subject than it seems. It is in our DNA as parents to protect our children from psychological pain and failing most definitely hurts, therefore we naturally want to protect them. It is widely acknowledged we know too much failure seriously damages a child’s confidence and self worth and good parenting prevents this from happening but we also know that life is full of failures, big and small.

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The importance of learning to play the piano

The importance of learning to play the piano.


What has learning to play the piano got to do with a child’s healthy psychological development? The short answer is ‘everything’. The struggle, the practice, enduring the frustrations, the eventual joy of mastering something that was previously thought of as too difficult, is a life-long lesson. It’s the kind of experience that builds confidence, character and a certain resilience. As your child gets older successfully managing frustrations, academic or social is a very important part of healthy child development. Conversely if your child cannot manage these frustrations then things can get complicated.

Continue reading “The importance of learning to play the piano”