Raising Our Kids to Be Emotionally Healthy Adults
As a high school student in the USA today there is a lot of pressure to be number one—the best student, the most talented athlete, an amazing musician. Aside from the obvious pressure this puts on a child, the problem is that being number one does not predict happiness and success. Ned Hallowell, psychiatrist and author, discusses the attitudes that are predictors for success—confidence, grit, optimism and intrinsic motivation—that parents can teach their children as a recipe for a genuinely good life. The Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Making Caring Common Project echoes Hallowell with its emphasis on helping parents raise young people who are caring, committed to their communities and concerned about social justice. Here are key factors for emotionally healthy children:
- Connection. Hallowell advises parents to give their children as many positive personal connections as they can during childhood. Host family celebrations, share meals, get a pet, live in a neighborhood where children play and the adults know each other. Having connection doesn’t mean the family will be in harmony all the time. With connection comes conflict. “The opposite of connection is indifference,” says Hallowell. People who care about each other will not always agree and that is okay. Spirituality contributes to connection and this doesn’t have to mean organized religion, but joy and celebration, concern for others in day-to-day life and through volunteer work, and appreciation of music or nature. Making Caring Common advises parents to encourage caring for others over achievement.
- Play. “Any activity where a child’s imagination lights up can make a long-term difference to his life,” said Hallowell. It is not necessary and is probably harmful to pay hundreds of dollars an hour for the best tutor money can buy or hire the elite private pitching coach to boost a boy’s chance of making varsity. Hallowell encourages parents to play with their kids including teenagers. Toss the ball, do projects, have game and movie nights. Encourage healthy risk taking and adventure.
- Work. Hallowell advises parents to provide opportunities where a child can make progress on a real project or task and build confidence. Discovering the joy of personal accomplishment by constructing a chair or learning to appreciate nature through a camping trip are experiences that may not ever appear on a resume, but will shape a child in a positive, long lasting way. One of our former clients built a skateboard ramp that took up his entire basement—his parents knew it was important to let him do this and it was a deeply meaningful experience for this young man. Chores and household responsibilities as well as paid work experiences are ways to build self-esteem in many children, including those who may not excel in school or sports. Making Caring Common’s faculty director, Richard Weissbourd discourages rewarding children from doing chores because helping the household run should be an expected responsibility that a child has as a member of the family.
- Progress. Developmentally, young people mature and engage at different rates. “Challenge a kid to bring out more than he thinks he’s got,” said Hallowell. But to do this without unhealthy pressure, encourage children in the context of connection—not telling a child what to do, but collaborating and joining a child in an activity or interest—whether it is cooking together, reading a book at the same time, or shooting hoops—to bring them along.
- Recognition. Acknowledge progress and engagement and not just accomplishment. “Moral behavior is tied to connection,” said Hallowell. “If you are part of something larger, you don’t want to let the group down.” There is a reason that those young people who commit immoral acts are often those who lack meaningful personal connections.
Wonderful parents can do all these things and their children may still struggle. However, a foundation of positive attitudes will help kids through the rocky times. In our culture it is easy to get caught up with society’s measures of what is excellence. Getting into a selective college or making the elite soccer team will not guarantee a life well lived. Celebrating children for who they are over what they accomplish will increase the chances of a child becoming a healthy and happy adult.
For further reading:
The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness by Ned Hallowell, M.D.
The Parents We Mean To Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development by Richard Weissbourd (one of my favorites)