Ask any parent what they wish most for their child and the answer will likely be ‘for them to be happy’. From the minute we become parents, our happiness is forever linked to the well-being of our child in a way they will never quite understand unless they too become a parent one day. However, that seemingly simple first wish for them becomes more elusive, more complicated with each passing year (and each eye roll!). What is happiness? How do they get it? How can they keep it?
The truth is, they have to grow it. And in a world where increasing numbers of adults have ‘lost their happy’ and so look for it in external things – their achievements, their status, their possessions, their appearance – how can we help our young ones to spot the little seeds of their happiness and nurture them until they bloom?
What is Happiness?
Well, the first step is to realise that what we think of as ‘happiness’ actually isn’t the same as long term ‘happy’. When we think of happiness, we normally think of the fleeting and temporary high we get from an external ‘fix’– be it chocolate or a bit of extra time on the Xbox. True happy is a lasting state of contentment. It can come from noticing and appreciating the small things that bring joy, like getting out of uniform and into PJs. Encourage them to notice the small stuff – it matters. You can do this by pointing out the small things that bring you joy: feeling the sun on the back of your neck, hearing birds in the morning again after the winter, or just being in your dressing gown. Don’t let the dismissive shoulder shrugs put you off – they need to hear it, and it will stay with them.
Lasting contentment also comes from having a sense of purpose: the fulfilment that comes from doing something that matters and seeing that your efforts make a difference. Small children quite naturally have this sense of purpose: their mission is to explore, to learn and to create. As they grow however, this purpose seems to dilute into the many distractions and general busy-ness of life. After a while, it can begin to feel like a full-on mission to try and get them motivated by anything other than the PlayStation or latest YouTube videos.
The Chicken or the Egg?
There’s a lot of research about why children seem to lose this natural sense of purpose – and with it their motivation! But one thing that stands out is how much a person’s sense of their own ability matters. Children as young as four have an understanding of their abilities in different areas, though at this age it doesn’t seem to affect their approach to tasks[i] – this comes later. By the end of primary school, how a child views an activity relates to how good they think they are at it. [ii] By the time they are teenagers, they tend to believe they are not good at anything they find difficult.[iii]
So – if seeing your efforts make a difference is important to the long term happy of our children, how do we get them to make an effort, and not just avoid hard things because they think they’re no good at them?
By helping your child achieve small successes along the way to their ‘big goal’, they begin to expect more success – they start to believe they can do it and therefore want to make more effort. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation – they don’t need motivation to make an effort, they need to make an effort to become motivated (which is why a bit of initial bribery could be a necessary evil!). It’s probably no coincidence that research also shows that a parent’s confidence in their ability to help their child is linked to the child’s levels of motivation and achievement.[iv]
The Key to Success
The key is to support them in taking small steps towards their goal – whatever that may be. It doesn’t matter if the activity at hand is maths homework, basketball or getting out of bed and organised by a reasonable time in the morning, the principle is the same.
The impact of the parents taking the lead on this can’t be overstated because two truths are evident:
1. A young person’s own expectations of their achievement has the greatest influence on their achievement.
2. Young people tend to underestimate what they are able to achieve.[v]
So, how can a parent help their child achieve these small successes, which will motivate them to go on and achieve even greater things? Well, we can actually take a lead from one of the many games that seem to have no problem keeping them motivated! In a game like Fortnite, for example:
• What they have to do to succeed is obvious – and success isn’t just about reaching ‘the end’, it’s also about lots of individual actions during the game.
• They are engaged in deliberate practice. They are not just aimlessly playing for fun, they use feedback to improve their performance and get better each time.
• There’s constant challenge, but also constant feedback about both success and failure. Children don’t lose motivation when they repeatedly die in these games, so they won’t lose motivation when they’re told they’ve got something wrong, as long as it’s balanced so they can see their small successes and their progress. [vi]
If we can apply some of these ideas to helping our children achieve regular, small successes, they will no longer avoid the increasing challenges they face as they grow, but meet them with confidence.
For other ideas on how to support your child as they navigate the minefield of growing up, contact us at email@example.com.
[i] Wigfield, A. (1994) Expectancy Value Theory of Achievement Motivation: A Developmental Perspective, Educational Psychology Review, 6:1, 49-78
[ii] Wigfield, A. (1994) Expectancy Value Theory of Achievement Motivation: A Developmental Perspective, Educational Psychology Review, 6:1, 49-78
[iii] Eccles, J. and Wigfield, A. (1995) In the Mind of the Actor: The Structure of Adolescents’ Achievement Task Values and Expectancy-Related Beliefs, Society for Personality and Social Psychology, 21:3, 215-225
[iv] Bandura, A. et al (1996) Multi-faceted Impact of Self Efficacy Beliefs on Academic Functionality, Child Development, 67:3, 1206-1222
[v] Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers, Oxon: Routledge
[vi] Hattie, J. (2012) Visible Learning for Teachers, Oxon: Routledge