In Hitchhiker’s Guide, we’re told that, as a child, Zaphod had been diagnosed with ‘ADHDDAAADHD (ntm) ABT’ which stood for ‘Always Dreaming His Dopey Days Away, Also Attention Deficit Hyperflactulance Disorder (not to mention) A Bit Thick’. The majority of children aren’t ‘thick’, but in the modern world, they’re incredibly distracted.
As we enter the silly season, when kids get stressed about exams, teachers get stressed about kids not living up to expectations and parents getting stressed about trying not to nag too much about revision, it’s important to stay calm and positive.
I’ve been studying the science of happiness for 11 years and here a few lessons, for all the family (and for teachers), to help us calm the hell down and sail through the silly season:
Lesson #1: The 8:1 Ratio The modern take is that you should be helping your child nurture a growth mindset, that is, an attitude that equates success with hard work. Nagging, punishment and pointing out what’s wrong means kids will learn to stick to what they know to be safe which, over time, leads to a fixed mindset (example, ‘I’m rubbish at maths. I’ll never be able to learn it’). If you mix in a healthy dose of positive reinforcement you will be rewarded with discretionary effort. One of the most effective things a teacher, parent and/or grandparent can do is to use a positivity/negativity ratio of about 8:1. It may seem a lot and it can be difficult to get it right, but catch your child doing things well. Notice the little things and tell them. Oh, and mean it!
Lesson #2: Celebrate better How we behave in a moment of triumph and joy makes a huge difference in either building or undermining relationships. Broadly speaking, parents need to be ‘active constructive’, that means celebrating success with genuine enthusiasm. I’m not suggesting an over the top punching of the air celebration for every smidgeon of good news, but a raising of your levels of enthusiasm means you won’t miss out on so many glorious relationship building opportunities. The ‘active constructive’ reaction is completely brilliant on all sorts of levels. The message is they’re proud and you’re proud. Your active constructive response means they know you’re proud. Best of all, you’ve engineered it so you know they know you’re proud. (Read it again, maybe a couple of times, until it sinks in!) The result is that everyone feels great and your child will want to repeat that behaviour.
Lesson #3: Praise for effort rather than talent The advice from positive psychology is that if your child accomplishes something, don’t say, ‘Well done, you are such a little genius!’ But rather, ‘Awesome, you put the effort in and got the reward.’ Here’s a concrete example. If your daughter does well in a mock maths exam don’t high-five, ‘Holy cow, total genius girl. You were born to do algebra.’ You’d be better off saying, ‘Amazing result. That’s what practice and hard work gets ya!’ and ruffle her hair in a chummy fashion.
Lesson #4: Never pay your children for exam results A very common parenting trap! It’s so tempting, but let’s examine the sub-text of your well-meaning ‘payment by results’ system. What you are effectively saying is, ‘I understand that studying is a horrible thing to do. And I appreciate that you will only do it for money,’ and bang goes their love of learning. You are teaching them (albeit innocently and subconsciously) that learning is a chore. You’d be better off suggesting that you’ll do a family day out as a reward for all their hard work.
Lesson #5: ‘I wish you well’ Everyone gets a little stressed and it’s easy to snap. Have a go at the 5-3-2 technique. You must first consider five people that you’re grateful to have in your life. Then, for the first three minutes you meet them, meet them like a long lost friend and don’t judge anyone or try to improve them. And for the first two seconds when you see another person, send them a silent ‘I wish you well’. It’s rather beautiful way of applying mindfulness to relationships.
Lesson #6: The 7-second hug This goes hand-in-hand with the above. I started delving into the research behind this and then thought, sod it, nobody cares what the stats say. Here’s the headline news – the average hug lasts just over 2 seconds. If you hang on for a full 7 seconds then oodles of nice warm chemicals flow around both bodies and the love is transferred. One word of advice, don’t count out loud while you’re doing the 7-second hug as it tends to spoil the effect.
Lesson #7: Chatter away! If you visit proper academic papers and government reports, you’ll find that far too many families are hindering their children’s development. A study by Hart and Risley suggested that by age 4, children raised in poor families will have heard 32 million fewer words than children raised in professional families. To add to the woe, it’s not just quantity, it’s also the emotional tone. So please speak a lot and, where possible, couch your language in the 8:1 ratio of positive to negative. Say instead of ‘how was school?’ why not upgrade to ‘what was the highlight of your day?’ or ‘what was the funniest or most amazing thing you’ve done today?’ Say it like you mean it and, of course, properly listen to the answer. You will be rewarded with an increased likelihood of a positive conversation.
Lesson #8: Celebrate strengths Parents have a lot to answer for. Too much love and encouragement gives children an inflated idea of what they can do. Witness the early rounds of the prime-time talent shows where the kid has been bigged up so much that they believe the parental hype. We, the viewer, reach for our ear plugs as the performer refuses to accept the truth of their wailing banshee voice. And yet too little love and encouragement means we’re crippled emotionally. You can have the best voice on the planet but no confidence to get up there and belt it out. A lot of people beat themselves up about what they’re not good at to the point that it stops them celebrating what they are good at. Be a strengths spotter.
Lesson #9: Gaze lovingly Mindfulness for parents… if you’ve got small children, here’s a belter from Gretchen Rubin. You know how last thing at night can be a mad rush, dashing around getting school bags sorted, packed lunches packed and school uniforms ironed? Instead of rushing around headless-chicken style, why not indulge in a spot of what Gretchen calls ‘gazing lovingly’. Gretchen and her husband say, ‘Come on, let’s go and gaze lovingly at the kids as they sleep.’ That is such a fabulous idea. Simple, free and a perfect example of being in the moment. Probably less appropriate for teenagers and on no account should you gaze lovingly at anyone else’s kids!
Lesson #10: Gratitude Ask everyone in your family to write a list of 10 things they really appreciate but take for granted. Then compare lists (top tip, make sure your partner is near the top of your list!) Spookily enough, top of everyone’s list will be family and health. Kids will likely have wifi and PlayStation up there too. But the point is that too many people spend too much time moaning about what they haven’t got. Happy folk are much more grateful for what they have got. Look at your 10 things. #OMG, How lucky are you? Andy Cope is a happiness expert, author and founder of training company The Art of Brilliance