Monday, January 01, 2007

A revelation about happiness

My cousin Stefani gave me this great book to read - Too much of a good thing, by Dan Kindlon. It's a great parenting book - I highly recommend it for parents with kids of any age. Anyhow, Dan mentions a study about what brings happiness - not just for kids but for everyone.

He says that happiness comes from challenges, or things in general that focus us and require our undivided attention. In fact, a study was done with elderly residents in a nursing home. Half the residents were told that they are self-sufficient, responsible for themselves, and moreso, were entirely responsible for a plant placed in their room. The other half were told that the staff would take complete care of them, and that the staff would completely care for the plant in their room. The could relax, rest, and have no worries. The former group - the one who was told they were responsible for themselves and their plant - lived longer and were happier. The premise is that we're not necessarily happiest when we have all the things we want or when everything in life is going our way. Instead, we're happiest when we're fully engaged in something that focuses our attention - for some that might be reading a good book or playing an instrument well. For others it might translate to a challenging career.

The kicker was that the challenge has to be appropriate. If it's unsurmountable, it doesn't bring happiness but stress. If it's too easy it brings boredom. And I'm seeing that now with Sofia. In the morning, she wants to dress herself. Wait. no. She wants to pick out her clothes. She wants control of the entire process - to go up the stairs by herself, open each drawer and choose the appropriate article of clothing from it. Then, she proceeds to up all the various pieces of clothing she's going to wear, throw them at me in one thrust, and then sit in my lap for me to dress her. If I offer to let her dress herself, she throws herself on the floor in a toddler fit. Dressing herself, apparently, is an insurmountable task. But taking off her clothes (and diaper too) and then choosing her outfit for the day is the perfect challenge for her. Or so I'm learning.

I can't figure out how to balance this for Liam though. He gets frustrated so easily. He desperately wants to walk, but won't let go of the furniture. If we challenge him to, the whining begins. When he gets frustrated my first instinct is to rescue, but I guess I need to learn the balance of providing him with appropriate challenges.

I think this will only get harder as they grow older. The trouble is how to motivate them and push them to succeed while engaging their minds and hearts, and at the same time focusing on character development rather than whether or not they were the team's MVP or the class valedictorian.

So, as they grow older, a cell phone or generous allowance isn't the way to make our kids happy. Nor is sheltering them from all pain and suffering (as much as I'd like to do that). And protecting them from consequences definitely won't help. It's all about challenging them and focusing them.

No comments: