Happiness is family shaped

27th September 1996 at 01:00
What makes a happy child? Ask any infant scampering past you in the playground and you'll get a variety of answers: "Sweets", "Seeing ArsenalLiverpoolMan U win", "My birthday", "Going down the Big One", "My friend coming to play", "Going swimming", "A kitten". But these childish answers are actually telling you what makes a particular child feel happy, rather than what makes a happy child.

Happy children do not grow on trees. They grow in families - where their basic physical needs, for warmth, food and being kept clean are met, as well as their psychological needs. These involve being held within a stable framework, being nourished by adults who give them attention and the confidence that their attempts to digest their experience are valued, and being accompanied through the trials of life by someone who will share their natural distress when things go wrong. Under such conditions, says Lisa Miller of the Tavistock Clinic, London, children's eagerness for new experiences can be safely enjoyed and children can be happy at home or in school.

Teachers, who at the beginning of a child's school career take on a quasi-parental role in the child's mind, gradually become more distant. Yet, to keep the happy children in their class happy, they still need to remember these underlying responses which help keep things right. A strong sense of the structure of the school day, enough focus on every individual to ensure that each feels of value, attentiveness to genuine trouble so that a child does not feel that they must suffer alone.

Much more than prescribed behaviour, these are underlying attitudes which will help to foster the child who likes to know, to experiment and to perfect, to share and, as time goes on, to give. But we're not talking Little Lord Fauntleroy here.

Happy children have, as Adam Phillips, a writer and children's psychoanalyst, says, an intense love for life, a zest which means each ice-cream, tube of sweets, football match or swimming trip can make them happy. Their capacity to live life, their hunger for knowledge, has not been interfered with.

Of course, such ordinarily happy children will still face reversals, whether they be losing the ball over the fence or losing a family member through death or divorce. How far a child may recover from difficulties depends, unfairly, partly on underlying temperament. Some people just do have sunny dispositions, just as some people have an attractive, beaming smile.

But quite a lot of that famous childish resilience depends on how far important adults have been able to offer support when nasty things happen. If you are bullied at school and your dad says: "Come and help me in the garden, " or your mum tells you how she managed to cope with a similar situation, things don't seem so bleak.

If your teacher listens to you when you are really worried and does not dismiss your problems, it is easier to find the strength to deal with them. Everyone needs a shoulder to cry on, now and then; children who get adequately comforted are more likely to grow up as adults who can give comfort. That's why "Don't be a baby", "Big boys don't cry", and "There's nothing to cry about" are the most disabling words for adults to offer upset children.

Happy children are allowed to be unhappy now and then. But mostly they won't want to be. Their appetite for life will pull them along. Adults in charge of them are lucky. Enjoy, enjoy.

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