Don't worry, be happy!

Parents take comfort in the belief that the most important thing is for their child to be happy at school. But is this really enough? Gareth Jones, Head of St. Andrew's Prep Eastbourne, looks at both sides.

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Like many heads, I often hear the line, 'as long as my child is happy at school, that's what really matters.' And in many ways, it is a successful guiding principle – as parents and educators, we want our children to be happy above all else don't we? But what if our child is not performing to the level we expect even though he or she is happy? What then is more important – performance or happiness? And how do we deal with it? Do we say nothing and let our child coast contentedly? Or say something, foist our frustration onto our child and unwittingly apply pressure and risk unhappiness.

Since my days as a Housemaster, I have often considered whether being happy at school is enough for a good education? It is universally accepted that a pupil will not flourish if he or she is unhappy. But is that strictly true? Take a look at the world of professional sportsmen and women for example: there are plenty of examples where ambition has been pursued at the expense of happiness. You cannot be a child prodigy on the sports scene without losing out on aspects of your childhood and all too often there is a parent pushing the child to greatness. All this might lead to gold medals and fame but that doesn't necessarily mean happiness. It suggests that if being happy at school is the primary goal then emphasis on being the best is unhealthy in the long term. Therefore, maybe children should not be competitive with each other? That will keep them happy, won't it?

A great complexity in all this is that we, as humans, can hold several feelings simultaneously. We become wiser with age about how to share our feelings but when we're younger we try hard not to let anyone down, especially our parents. I see this particularly with boarders who are homesick; on the one hand they are happy with their housemates, enjoying the social interaction, while on the other they are missing their family. This uniquely human trait is both good and bad. On the positive, it is our coping mechanism for disappointment; we can weigh up how frustrated we are, park it, and then return to our general life mood (i.e. hopefully happy and content). At worst though, our subconscious can trick our minds into blocking the unhappiness so that we learn to accommodate rather than act. This might be fine as we go through school but I am sure we all have had straight A students as contemporaries who imploded once they got to university at the realisation of the stress-induced unhappiness of their earlier life.

"We become wiser with age about how to share our feelings but when we're younger we try hard not to let anyone down, especially our parents. I see this particularly with boarders who are homesick; on the one hand they are happy with their housemates, enjoying the social interaction, while on the other they are missing their family."

In The Book of Joy, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and His Holiness the Dalai Lama share thoughts about happiness in our changing world and there is a chapter entitled: 'Nothing beautiful comes without some suffering'. In many ways, this philosophical thought is at the heart of a true education. The Dalai Lama says, 'Too much self-centred thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others' well-being is the source of happiness.'

In this instantaneous world, children are growing up to like things without consideration, to measure success by the number of virtual 'friends' they have and to aspire to the perfect lifestyles portrayed by the media. No wonder there is an increase in mental health issues. Our job as educators therefore is to teach children how to form opinions properly, how to substantiate ideas, how to self-reflect without over-analysing, how to listen and value other opinions, how to think critically and how to be aware of the wider community.

I believe the best schools are the ones with an ethos that places service to others as a primary value because they are more likely to produce contented and balanced pupils. Doing things for others develops compassion, patience and gratitude – and leads to more harmonious communities where bonds are tighter, mistakes are forgiven and intentions are transparent. Does this then strengthen the argument of those who believe a good education is one which lacks competition?

I would say no, for this is not realistic. Life is competitive and a good education should prepare a child for the future. Children need to understand themselves in the context of the world around them and that means comparing themselves against others occasionally so that they gain a realistic understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. There are ways in which competition can be introduced so that it is at the right level for each child as they progress on their educational journey. Although this might be frustrating initially, ultimately it is the pathway to happiness and success.

A good education should enable a child to lose, be frustrated and, yes occasionally, be unhappy. What matters is that they learn how to respond to these moments with resilience and positivity. A good education should also ensure that every pupil recognises the importance of teamwork. Thinking for oneself is necessary, but so too is thinking collaboratively; pupils must recognise the value of benefiting others with one's own service so that they will each reap the benefit of service from others in return. A quid pro quo approach to life that is practical and pragmatic.

"A good education should enable a child to lose, be frustrated and, yes occasionally, be unhappy. What matters is that they learn how to respond to these moments with resilience and positivity."

There are other components that many will argue a good education needs to provide too. Nick Gibb, Minister of State for School Standards, argued in 2016 that knowledge is central to a good education. Aware that many will place creativity, problem solving, critical thinking and innovation alongside knowledge, he said, '...a good education is about all those things. But each of them is dependent upon, and impossible without, a fundamental basis of knowledge about the subject in question.'

I would not disagree with Mr Gibb but what is not mentioned is the culture in which these things are delivered because whatever form of education is provided, a child will only engage if they are happy to receive advice, guidance and nurturing. Each child must want to be taught. The best schools foster this.

Of course, parents are crucial in this too because often the pressure a child feels comes from them. A good education is not just the school's responsibility. Parents need to play their part in encouraging their child by rewarding effort not outcome; they must also allow their child to enjoy the journey and not be obsessed with the destination; they must role-model patience; and they must also find ways to let their children work things out for themselves.

Guidance and boundaries are crucial of course and this comes down to the culture that is created around a child. We must strive for a culture in which each child feels acknowledged for what he or she does, not judged. Judgement leads to blame which, in turn, leads to a fear of making mistakes. Acknowledgement, however, leads to responsibility and honesty and a willingness to give things a go. If this is achieved, while there may be ups and downs along the way, a child is likely to leave school with a happy heart, confident, ambitious and educated for whatever life throws at them.

Gareth Jones Photo

Gareth Jones is Headmaster of St Andrew's Prep, a day and boarding school for boys and girls aged 9 months to 13 years. Located in the coastal town of Eastbourne, East Sussex, the school aims to equip our young pupils with the minds to tackle modern life.

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