I always thought I just wanted my two kids to be happy and healthy. Then they started sprouting like weeds—walking, talking, entering school, navigating social life, becoming young adults. Over time, I came to realize that “happy and healthy” as a goal was pretty vague.
Did “happy” mean they should never feel sadness or failure? That they should avoid all struggle? Did “healthy” simply mean serving them some veggies and telling them to stay away from drugs and alcohol — what about their habits; what about emotional health?
As parents, our responsibilities can feel overwhelming. We don’t have all the answers. But it helps to define the goals more clearly: If our job as parents is to help our children become emotionally, socially, physically, and functionally prepared to reach their potential [link to post #1], this means our goal is making sure they are WELL & READY.
To be clear, let’s define “well.”
Between them, researchers Alfie Kohn, Marty Seligman, and Brene’ Brown have written many books on happiness, parenting, success, authenticity and how to live a fulfilling, productive life. Over the years, they’ve asked audiences of parents the same question thousands of times: “Name a few adjectives that describe what you want for your children.”
STOP— how would you answer this question?
Without exception, these experts get the same core list every time they ask. Parents want their kids to have ”…happiness”, “confidence”, “contentment”, “fulfillment”, “balance”, “kindness”, “health”, “satisfaction”, “love”, “be civilized”, “meaning”, and the like.” [Flourish pp. 78]
Is your list similar?
They’ve discovered that regardless of our approach to parenting, we’re aiming for the same thing: We want our children to thrive. Dr. Martin Seligman is the father of the positive psychology movement — the science and practice of helping people flourish. In his latest book, Flourish, Seligman explains his evolution and realization that the goal of positive psychology isn’t Happiness, as he previously thought, but instead, to increase flourishing. And, the path to that is through well-being.
Happiness, it turns out, is one required element, but hot the whole story of thriving people. People who have a positive sense of well-being are more than happy and healthy! So I turned my sights on that.
The central driver of positive psychology is “Well-Being Theory,” which has five contributing elements:
- positive emotion
- positive relationships
Dr. Seligman’s research demonstrates that people who have high degrees of these five conditions are “flourishing”. This is what it means to be “Well”. Now I have a measurable criteria for “Well”!!
But “Well” is not a destination. You don’t arrive at “Well”, kick up your heels with a margarita, and call it a day. Instead, “Well” is a condition that is experienced when you continually employ habits and practices that help you thrive. This might mean taking the long-view, and realizing that short-term happiness has to take a back seat to long-term accomplishment or meaning which gives you positive emotions.
So, our parental challenge is to focus on these dimensions of well-being, and teach our children the habits and practices of “well”, as they grow. The practices that help you thrive when you’re three differ from those when you’re sixteen. But, over time, they learn the habits that lead to long-term thriving.
So what does this look like in real life? Suppose you have a spirited, headstrong 3-year-old girl (yep, you know the one!). She may struggle with sharing, or leaving her parents, or changing her routine. If you make it a habit to ask her “What went well today, and why?” every night, you give her a daily opportunity to re-experience her positive behavior, learn what worked and why, find meaning in her challenges, feel good about her relationship with you and others, and even gain a sense of accomplishment. This approach can decrease the common instances of power struggles, challenges with sharing, or switching gears. And, it will better serve her in the long run.
Ok, back to “happy and healthy”. I figured out that instead of happy, I wanted my kids to have a high degree of well-being. What about “healthy”? Intuitively, I knew it had to go beyond carrots and fresh air. So, back to the research.
It turns out I really wanted them to be “ready” – physical health (the carrots part) is part of it, but again, not the whole story. It turns out, ‘healthy’ includes:
- emotional health (secure, hope, optimism)
- social health (relationships)
- functional health (life skills – tying shoes, decision making)
- physical health – (veggies, fresh air, exercise)
And it’s all relative to the stage of development – “Healthy” translates to “Ready” or being prepared. Is your child prepared to thrive—and how do you know?
Children need to be prepared for the current moment while getting ready for the developmental stage that’s just around the corner. By helping your child prepare for this afternoon, and for the next stage, you are offering your child some safety and comfort, while ensuring that he has the emotional, social, and functional skills, knowledge and practices that make him healthy and ready to thrive. The added bonus is that you avoid surprises and unwanted consequences that come when a child is unprepared. Preparing is a way to help them be healthy across the board as they mature.
So while I thought I wanted “happy and healthy” kids, my research indicates that I (and most of you) really want Well & Ready kids.
In our next post, we’ll look at how to stay sane while learning how to do Well & Ready. (Little secret: it’s easier than you think!)