What do you really want for your children? It’s probably not another soccer trophy or star upon your chore list! Most parents, if they linger over the question, will answer that more than anything else they want their children to be happy. So, to help parents encourage their children to learn the necessary skills, “Distraction” podcast host Dr. Edward Hallowell, father of three and a clinical psychiatrist, created a five-step plan for promoting successful learning and lifelong joy that parents, teachers and all others who care about children can use to give children the gift of happiness that will last a lifetime:
Connect: Connectedness is the first—and most important—step in the five steps outlined. Feeling rooted gives children a foundation of security. Children need unconditional love from one or both parents and benefit when they have close ties to their extended family, feel part of their school, and help care for pets.
Play: If you are a parent or a teacher, please don’t take play for granted. Don’t think that your child will automatically learn how to play, just because he is a child. Many children these days are not learning how to play. And knowing how to play is one of the essential keys to happiness in life. Make sure your child’s/student’s free time isn’t too programmed and regimented. Open-ended play, in which children can invent scenarios and solve problems by themselves, helps them discover their talents and use their own resources. Never underestimate how important play is, especially the kind of play the child makes up on his own or with a friend or group of friends.
Practice: You can feel enthusiastic about encouraging practice and discipline if you understand and believe one basic fact: practice and discipline build the bridge between play and mastery. Children may not understand this intellectually, but they experience it all the time. So do adults. When kids find out what they’re good at, they’ll want to do it again and again. Sometimes you may have to do some gentle nudging to ensure that your child/student sticks to an activity and experiences a sense of accomplishment. But the best approach is to simply set the process up, over and over, rather than to lecture. Let your child connect with others and play, let him find something he likes and practice it, and let him then taste mastery and receive recognition. As the process repeats, the roots of practice and discipline start to grow.
Mastery: From practice comes mastery. The feeling of mastery and the wish to experience it again, transforms a child, or an adult, from a reluctant, fearful learner into a self-motivated player. One of the great goals of parents, teachers, and coaches should be to find areas in which a child might experience mastery, and then make it possible for the child to feel this potent sensation. When children achieve a skill — whether it’s learning to tie their shoes, play the piano, draw a flower, complete a math problem, or build a birdhouse — they’re further motivated to tackle new challenges. And that leads to a can-do attitude.
Recognition: Although mastery is its own reward, another crucial element reinforces mastery while also leading onto a wider feeling of connectedness. That element is recognition, the feeling of being valued by others, especially others whose opinions the person respects. Approval and support from one’s parents, teachers, and peers for a job well done reconnect children to the wider world. When kids think what they do affects their family, classmates, and team, they’re more likely to exhibit moral behavior and, ultimately, to feel good about themselves.
The benefits of self-esteem, confidence and joy grow spontaneously out of this process. It is a cycle that cannot be cut short (you cannot leave out play, for example) and you can’t teach the natural results of the cycle. I can’t tell you how many parents want to teach their children moral behavior or supply their children with self-esteem. This approach is well meaning, but it doesn’t work because it is artificial. You cannot tell a person to “just be happy.” They must have learned all of the steps it takes to sustain lifelong joy.
Listen to the “Distraction” podcast on iTunes.