Sunday, November 19, 2006

TEACHING KIDS TO BE HAPPY

My son Jesse just asked me, "Dad, have you thought about writing a column about being done with something, and feeling good about being done with it?" Jesse had just completed his homework early, and was enjoying the feeling of both the burden lifted, and the joy of accomplishment.

Good idea, Jesse. So here goes.

There is momentary pleasure, and then there is the satisfaction that comes from focusing on a goal, absorbing yourself in the task, and completing it well. Often the difference between a happy life and an unhappy life has to do with whether you spend more of your time and energy engaged in pursuing the former or the latter.

Momentary pleasure can be wonderful. I would never suggest that you should not do things and have experiences that make you feel good. In fact it is well worth making sure that you make room for pleasure, and practice savoring the sensations that go along with it. My one caveat is that you try and do things that are congruent with your values, and that do no harm.
But people who spend a significant amount of time trying to have pleasurable experiences are actually among the least happy of people. Passing pleasures, when invested in too dearly, just don't deliver the long term sense of satisfaction and joy that their wonderful moments might suggest.

That long term satisfaction and joy comes from engaging in activities that absorb you, that challenge you outside of your comfort level but within your competence, and that also have some meaning to you. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced chick-sent-me-high) calls this state of mind "flow".

In contrast to momentary pleasures, the most common emotional state that people experience during flow is... nothing. You are generally not aware of what you are feeling when you are absorbed in what you are doing, because, well, you are absorbed in what you are doing. All of your awareness and energy are focused on the task at hand.

The satisfaction and joy are sort of grown and accumulated as you work on your task. As you work, you are putting your mind to use, drawing from what you know and the skills you have learned, and applying and adapting them as needed to achieve your goal.

As you do this you are becoming more complex, and you add to your psychological resources and resilience. This is true whether it is a project for work, reading a book, playing an instrument, playing a sport, engagement in a relationship, or getting your kids to do their homework well.

Seeking pleasures is like spending money. Absorbing yourself in challenging and meaningful activities is like earning money and depositing into your account.

The more time you spend in flow, the more psychological capital you have to invest in other meaningful experiences and activities. You also have more psychological capital to use toward savoring momentary pleasures, too.

So, for a kid like Jesse, it is important that he has activities that challenge him to use and develop his skills. It is important that there are expectations that he will put his best effort toward these activities. And it is important that he learns to see these activities through to completion even when he doesn't feel like it.

It is important because doing so is a skill that a person must learn and practice. If he learns it now and masters the skill, he will be able to draw on it for the rest of his life. If he doesn't learn it and practice it now, he'll have to do it later.

It's harder to do later.

This is actually something that gets lost these days. In many schools, there is more focus on lowering expectations in the name of building "self-esteem", more focus on lessening challenges in the name of decreasing stress, and more focus on fitting lessons into small and (presumably) entertaining bites so that kids don't lose interest.

For parents, the most difficult part of parenting can be guiding kids toward challenging activities, holding them to high expectations, and keeping them at their task until it is through when their kids (and their parents) want to do something else - anything else. This task becomes all the more difficult when there is little obvious help in the community to support such a stance.

The dominant cultural tone, at least where I live, is pretty dismal. There is a romantic vision of the noble savage at work here, where kids who are left to work things out on their own, with other kids who are left to work things out on their own, are given the power to choose whether to do their work or not, whether to do their work well or not, whether to finish their tasks or just blow them off.

Kids (and adults) walk around with their underwear hanging out, their pants down to their knees, and lots of offensive artwork and "poetry" on their clothing.

This is what we see in movies, TV, and what stands out when we see lax standards at school and elsewhere in the community, where adults are either afraid to set clear guidelines, don't know how to, or just don't understand how important they are.

But when I start to worry too much about this, I remember the 60's and 70's. To judge from Hollywood and those annoying commercials praising the "free spirits" of the sixties, you would think that everybody back then protested the Vietnam War, hated America, and loved to do drugs.

But of course, that was not the case.

While the loudest in the culture hogged the spotlight and the microphones, and turned up their amplifiers and their bad manners way too loud, most of America was busy doing good work, raising families, helping their neighbors, and focusing on their business through completion.
People know what makes them feel that their life is good. It just takes time to sort it out when the messages are confusing.

It's no different today, just more graphic. Okay, a lot more graphic.

What Jesse said to me is important, because it reminds us that kids know that it feels good to do work well. Kids are glad to have guidelines, limitations and expectations - and they will test them often to make sure that they are sound. If you don't hold the structure strongly, they'll be glad to push through and just hang out. That will give them a momentary pleasure, and cost them the satisfaction of flow.

If they do that often enough, they'll get good at it.

I am talking about it here, because I would like you to be confident when you limit the videogame hours, require schoolwork that is challenging and expect it to be done well, limit empty time like hanging out at the mall and encourage productive and creative activities, and expect that underwear is to be worn under what they are wearing. You need to be confident that you are doing precisely the right thing for your kids.

No matter how loud the culture sounds, no matter how over the top it looks, guiding your kids toward flow and keeping the immediate gratifications within reasonable bounds is exactly what they need from you.

And tell them why, clearly. "This will help you to make a happy and successful life for yourself, and you'll feel better about yourself for having stuck with it until you're done."


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