'If you are in a position to diagnose a child's happiness in all its intensity, then you cannot fail to notice that the highest level of joy results from having overcome some obstacle – from a goal attained or a mystery solved. This is the happiness of triumph and the bliss of independence'. This wonderful passage by Dr Janus Korczak, the Polish educator and author, depicts something that many of us feel is harder to achieve today than in years past: the freedom of childhood is sadly no longer a rite of passage for many children.
It can be difficult to know exactly how to define happiness, and there are a multitude of terms that are used interchangeably to describe a child's overall wellbeing. It is therefore important to outline a framework to explore how we can help our children become confident, content and healthy little people. It is also worth noting that it is not possible to be in a permanent state of 'happiness' and that it should be viewed as an emotion that one feels (hopefully often!) but that other feelings like sadness, anger or boredom are perfectly natural too.
If we define wellbeing as a sense of being content, comfortable and healthy – and that it is made up of physical and mental wellness – we can then begin to look at what contributes to these symbiotic terms. There is no panacea to good mental health, but we do know that connecting with others, doing something that brings fulfilment and giving to others are all things that contribute to it and, of course, physical health is critically inter-related. It is built upon good sleep, a healthy diet and regular exercise.
Dr Matthew Walker, author of Why We Sleep, powerfully attests that: 'There is no physiological system that we've been able to measure that isn't enhanced by sleep when you get it, or demonstrably impaired when you don't get enough.' Yet we see that despite the World Health Organisation's recommendation of between 9 to 11 hours of sleep per night for adolescents, less than 20% of them achieve this. During the curious and malleable Why? years, between the ages of 4 to 13, educators and parents need to teach children why sleep matters and how to establish good sleep routines. This gives them a better chance of entering the teenage years well informed and empowered to make better sleep choices and reap the associated benefits.
"...between the ages of 4 to 13, educators and parents need to teach children why sleep matters and how to establish good sleep routines."
The other components of physical health have typically featured heavily in school curricula, as well as parent conversations and activities with their children. The public health campaigns about diet and exercise have been good – 'Five a Day', 'Sugar and Teeth' and 'Walk to School' – and, anecdotally, have been effective. Despite this, it is a concern that childhood obesity remains on the rise both in the UK and globally. One hypothesis for this is that children today lead a far more sedentary lifestyle, fuelled by technology in its many forms.
'Are social media/screens and gaming bad or good for children?' is a common worry for parents. Having given many a parent talk over the years on this topic, I have gradually seen the age of the children whose parents I am addressing fall, from Year 8 to 7 to Year 4 and 5. It seems that waiting for official guidance or recommendations on the use of technology for children is not a sensible option for this generation. So, despite there being a paucity of high quality and longitudinal evidence on this topic, I feel the following 'tips' are steps towards minimising the risks and maximising the opportunities of the digital world:
1. Establish a family technology agreement that includes everyone to ensure that screen time doesn't intrude into family activities, such as mealtimes, weekends and other key times together. It is helpful to sit down in a calm moment and, as a family, discuss the boundaries of screen use you will be adopting and the consequences of crossing those boundaries.
2. Families should negotiate screen time limits with their children based upon the needs and age of an individual child. Things to consider are the ways in which screens are used and the degree to which use of screens appears to displace (or not) physical and social activities, eating and sleep. Such limits should be reviewed regularly to reflect the age and maturity of your child.
3. Prioritise the recommended amount of sleep for your child (between 9 to 11 hours for over 5s, 13 for under 5s). The negative impact of even moderate sleep deprivation on mental and physical health, educational success and relationships is significant and screens should be avoided for an hour before sleep time.
4. Try to control snacking during screen times to prevent children indulging in unhealthy foods. The feeling of being satiated is often lost if children are too focused on playing highly immersive games, for instance.
5. Encourage non screen-based activities that maximise the malleability of your child's brain. These could be physical, creative or cognitive, or ones that simply require them to give or connect with others – all such activities impact positively on mental health.
6. Take an active involvement in the apps and games that your children use and buy to ensure you understand the risks and benefits of both.
7. Be aware of the content and purpose of different social media and social networking sites available, the functionality, age criteria and privacy settings. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to 'follow' your child on a given social media platform.
8. Essentially your child's life should have balance at the heart of it. Ensuring that sleep, activity, face-to-face time with family and friends, as well as engagement in doing and giving, are all present will minimise the impact of screens, social media and gaming.
Whilst it is fair to say that the 'pursuit of happiness' is perhaps not something that will automatically happen without some conscious decision and commitment, it does not have to be just the lucky few. At Cognita, we have worked with some of the world's leading experts on wellbeing, including sleep scientist Dr Matthew Walker, to produce a selection of free to download resources for families covering the topics of Sleep, Healthy Lifestyle, the Brain and Social Media and Screen Time (available from the Cognita website).
We live in an exciting era and our children will be afforded opportunities and experiences not possible for previous generations. Nevertheless, the hopes and aspirations we have for our children have not changed, nor have our morals and values and parents should trust their judgement more. You know your child and what is best for them better than anyone. By keeping the pillars of physical and mental health front of mind, and by consciously and regularly checking in to see if they are balanced, you will simultaneously be helping your child become content, healthy and comfortable. And, more importantly, know how to do that for themselves in the future.