What the science of happiness tells us about being the best mum or dad in the world...
If you're of a certain age you might remember 'Little House on the Prairie'? If you're not old enough, Google it. It's right up there with 'The Waltons' as the classic clean-cut wholesome family unit.
Now I don't know about you but our house doesn't resonate with a cheery 'Night Jim-Bob' at light's out. And try as we might, we hardly ever manage to sit down around a huge table, slicing into and handing round generous helpings of hearty home-made pumpkin pie. This isn't 1930's Walton Mountain. It's the next millennium along and I forgot to tell you - I'm from England!
You can't avoid kids. Just to clarify, what I mean is you can take certain precautions to avoid having them, but you can't go through life without encountering them. As a student of the relatively new concept of 'positive psychology', I thought it'd be worthwhile trawling the research to find out how the science applies to parenting.
First the bad news. Life is exhausting. Life with children, quadrupally so! Emotions are contagious so I think it's fair to say, 'You're only as happy as your least happy child.' But you can implement strategies that will enable your family to function brilliantly, most of the time.
If you've got small children, here's a belter from Gretchen Rubin. You know how last thing at night can be a mad rush, dashing around getting school bags sorted, packed lunches packed and school uniforms ironed? Instead of rushing around headless-chicken style, why not indulge in a spot of what Gretchen calls 'gazing lovingly'. Gretchen and her husband say, 'Come on, let's go and gaze lovingly at the kids as they sleep.' That is such a fabulous idea. Simple, free and a perfect example of being in the moment.
Carol Dweck's book is crammed with good advice. One of her experiments involved setting a group of children a really stern exam after which one group was praised for intelligence ('You are sooo clever!') and the other for effort ('You've worked reaaally hard!'). Next, she set a test that was impossible for them to complete! For an 11 year-old, that's a real bummer. And here's the rub folks, the first group (praised for being clever) soon capitulated, figuring that they weren't clever enough. But the second group (praised for effort) stuck at it and outperformed the others by 30%.
Dweck's advice is that if your child accomplishes something, don't say, 'Well done, you are such a little genius!' But rather, 'Awesome, you put the effort in and got the reward.'
Always praise effort rather than talent. If your son scores a goal at football, don't high-five him and say, 'Holy cow, total genius dude. You were born to play football.'
You'd be better off saying, 'Amazing goal, son. That's what practice and hard work gets ya!' And ruffle his hair in a chummy fashion.
Or when your daughter wins an award for art? 'Crikey young lady, you are destined to be the next Picasso.' Nope. 'That's what you get for all those hours of hard work.' Yep.
Carol Dweck speaks of 'dandelion' and 'orchid' children. If you're green fingered you'll appreciate the analogy. Dandelion kids are even tempered and hardy. They do pretty well wherever you put them. Parenting is, dare I say it, a tad easier. Whereas orchid kids are more variable. They can bloom spectacularly in the right setting or wither pitifully in the wrong one.
That's why parenting isn't an exact science!
Here's another pearler, this time from Dan Pink. He says you shouldn't pay your kids to do chores and on no account should you bribe them with cash for exam results.
Whoops! I hear you say.
According to Dan, it's a slippery slope that kills their work ethic and love of learning. Let's examine the sub-text of your well-meaning SATs 'payment by results' system, carefully devised in consultation with your year 6 child. What you are effectively saying is, 'I understand that studying is a horrible thing to do. And I appreciate that you will only do it for money.' Bang goes their love of learning. You are teaching them (albeit innocently and subconsciously) that learning is a chore.
Kim Cameron's superb book on 'Positive Leadership' has so much cross-over with parenting.
He uses some big words, like 'affirmative bias' and 'heliotropic effect' but, at its heart, his principles are total genius. Put simply, an affirmative bias is an orientation towards your child's strengths rather than their weaknesses, optimism rather than pessimism and support rather than criticism.
And the heliotropic effect is 'the tendency of all living things to grow towards that which gives life and away from that which depletes life.' In short, all living things have an inclination towards positivity. Plants lean towards the light. Kids lean towards encouragement. I'm struggling to find anything that I can say that is simpler or more enlightening than this?
Author in 'lost for words' conundrum!
Let me attempt to pull this all together. In terms of 'orchids and 'dandelions', the truth is that as a parent, you are having an extraordinary effect on the climate at home. I can't think of anything more important you'll ever do than re-create the heliotropic effect. That's what Ma and Pa Walton did. And it's most definitely what Charles Ingells from 'The Little House on the Prairie' did.
And if you're a new parent, I'd better warn you of what the established parents already know - your kids won't do what you say!
But they absolutely will do what you do!
So, can I leave you with a very big thought? When you're thinking of passing down your inheritance, be sure to remember that it's not just a lump of cash and a bit of jewellery. You are passing down habits, knowledge, mind-sets and cognitive traits. Your positivity can set your child up for life!