For this opinion paper, I will be focusing on children’s happiness, from the perspective of positive psychology. I decided on this topic because I am becoming increasingly interested in this field. It is definitely with this perspective that I want to continue my career in psychology. I want to start off by saying that children’s happiness is extremely important. There are numerous theories that talk about how a person’s childhood will predict or influence her future personality. Whether that may be true for most people or not, I know personally that having a predominantly happy or stressful or sad childhood makes a big difference. I have a collection of unpleasant memories from my childhood, and for a long time, it affected my personality and the way I interact with the world.
In positive psychology, there is the recognition of a person’s character strengths. Research done on character strengths shows that the strengths are related to our happiness (Park & Peterson, 2006). There are certain strengths, such as zest, gratitude, hope, and love, also called heart strengths, which have been shown to lead to long-term life satisfaction. Most of positive psychology research has been done on adults and adolescents, so there is not much known about young children’s happiness. However, research that is available is very insightful and shows that certain strengths can show up early in childhood. (Park & Peterson) Park & Peterson cited different examples; one of them is a fifteen-month old boy who gives a teddy bear to comfort his friend who was crying. Another example is that children even at the age of two or three are able to postpone eating good-tasting food when asked to.
This is very interesting for me because I have the sense that the general assumption in society is that children are reckless and all selfishness. However, these examples of children acting beyond their “instant gratification needs” are not too far-fetched for me. Paradoxically, people also believe that children are pure beings. What strikes me as crucial to look into is how children develop these character traits. Because there are children out there who may behave in ways that may be perceived as intolerable or at least very annoying to some people, such as throwing things and tantrums at levels. What makes these children different? Is the key in how the parents teach/discipline the children or how the parents behave themselves?
Park & Peterson (2006) conducted a study on children’s character strengths and their happiness based on the parent’s descriptions of the children. They concluded that all twenty-four strengths identified in positive psychology were found in the descriptions of their children. The strengths that stood out the most were love, curiosity, kindness, creativity, and humor. Overall, these children were described to have the heart strengths, love, zest, and hope. What is interesting is that gratitude was only shown to be connected to happiness for children seven years and up. The explanation is that gratitude required a level of cognitive maturity that younger children have not yet developed. (Park & Peterson)
It is assumed that the love that the child displays is a result of the secure attachment she has with her caretaker (Park & Peterson, 2006). I think this has a very important implication. I guess it would be redundant to say that the child’s parent(s) should love her, yet at the same time, I do believe that parents do not know necessarily how to love their children or what the best way is to show their affection. They might be very strict and clear on boundaries of behavior and call it tough love or they may be overindulgent in the spirit of letting the child develop freely. So I believe that it does take more than just having love for your child to form a healthy attachment. Another strength that I think is related to attachment as well is hope. Hope is described as a result of feeling safe, and it is formed early in life (Park & Peterson).
The researchers also found from their study that there was a higher level of happiness in the only child of the family or the youngest child rather than children in the middle (Park & Peterson, 2006). I would say that it has a lot to do with the attention that the parents are dividing among the children. From my conversations with other people, the message that I hear over and over again was that being the older or oldest child experienced more discipline and rules from parents.
The overall important implication from the study done by Park and Peterson (2006) is that we can help foster the character strengths of children early since they have been shown to be expressed in children at a very early age. I have wondered before writing this opinion paper whether happiness of the parents affect their children’s happiness to the degree that the children will model the happiness or depression level of their parents. In reading the study by Casas et al. (2008), the researchers found some similarities between the child and the parents, which were due to being in the same environment. However, they did not find any evidence that parents’ traits of being happy or not were heritable to children (Casas et al.).
My opinion on this is that the parents’ level of happiness does affect the child. I know from experience as a small child that the mood of my mother often times determined my mood, even if I did not understand what was going on. However, I also think that it is not a deterministic situation that children cannot develop strengths or can be happy even if the caretaker is not.
I think it is important to stress that children’s happiness cannot be forced, just like the happiness of adolescents and adults. However, I think with children, because they tend to want to make their parents happy, they will try to meet certain expectations. The example that came to my mind is with sports and competition. Parents and teachers can be so obsessed with winning that they forget about the experiences of the children. The competitive attitude can be implanted into children very easily and early on, I would know. I think it is a great pity when fun and enjoyment are taken out of children’s activities and replaced with “adult” values.
The concept of Montessori schools is very interesting to me. The whole idea is to have a school environment where children are encouraged to learn rather than making it like a chore. It is designed so that the child’s creativity is exercised with the abundance of toys and the way the classroom is structured. The furniture in the classroom is built for “small people”, so that when they bump into them, the furniture gets nudged. This gives the children a sense that they have an effect on their environment because what they do has a consequence and that their small size is equated with their level of influence. This gets into another topic of alternative education for children. However, I had to mention it because I do see a connection between Montessori school learning and positive psychology’s of children’s character strengths.
As a conclusion, I have to say, as a fan of positive psychology, that there is a lot to discover about children’s happiness and what makes them happy. Of course, this short opinion piece was only a glance at the sneak peak of the surface of it all. I have great hopes that the research done in positive psychology will continue yielding results that will better inform the community about how to foster and nurture the strengths of a child and to create an environment that really is “child-friendly.”
Casas, F., Coenders, G., Cummins, R. A., Gonzalez, M., Figuer, C., & Malo, S. (2008). Does subjective well-being show a relationship between parents and their children? Journal of Happiness Studies, 9(2), 197-205.
Park, N. & Peterson, C. (2006). Character strengths and happiness among young children: Content analysis of parental descriptions. Journal of Happiness Studies, 7(3), 323-341.