You’re not happy? Blame your schooling.

Should schools be prioritising the goal of producing happy well rounded children? I suppose that depends what that means in practice. How do I ensure my children are happy? How do I make them well rounded so they can lead happy fulfilling lives?

Well for starters… I do believe that parents should be a bit selfish. I’ve got friends who think they should respond to their child’s every whim and a parent’s selflessness seems to be directly proportional to the child’s selfishness. It strikes me a child needs to learn to be selfless as it gives them freedom from being a slave to their impulses. There has been a lot of debate recently on twitter about creating well rounded, happy, individuals. So is that my rule no. 1? The problem is that lots of people would disagree with me, in fact, now I say it, I mostly disagree with it myself. For example, I often worry that I should prioritise my children *more*. I must stop getting engrossed in twitter. My kids have developed a special abrupt shout, like when you call a naughty dog, to jerk me back into family life from my on line abstraction. Maybe selfishness isn’t so good. Ah say the wise ones, it is all about balance. That is so true but exactly where on a sliding scale of entirely self centred (at 0) and servant to every childish whim, (at 10) should I plump?

To be honest my angst means my views are often contradictory. My children do maths with me at home and learn instruments but even in this I am conflicted. When does parental help become ‘pushing’ or, heaven forbid, ‘hothousing’. I have told my children that what is most important is that they strive to be kind and decent human beings. Oh, but now I’m worried! Could it be my children are just doormats? By giving them a conscience have I just made them endlessly critical of themselves? Maybe I really have lowered my eldest child’s self esteem and that explains the friendship problems she had at school. The girls that bullied her seem pretty happy, untrammelled by conscience. It is a dog eat dog life out there after all and I should be preparing them for that.

Arghhhh – I JUST WANT MY CHILDREN TO BE HAPPY. To grow up WELL ROUNDED. Um, well I think that is what I want for them…

Maybe my particular parental angsts are uncommon, I don’t know, but I’m sure virtually all parents worry. We want our children to be happy and well rounded but we are pulled every which way. We’d give everything if we could just be sure it was the right everything! I think that is why I found so much of the rhetoric I read up on for my last blog post last week rather worrying. As a parent I am conflicted everyday about how to help my kids to be happy and well rounded and yet school literature, especially for early years, frequently states with enormous confidence, not just that they want kids that are happy and well rounded (who would seriously disagree) but all things being equal, they claim emphatically that their approach WILL ensure this.

My question is HOW ON EARTH CAN THEY BE SO SURE? What is it that they know that I don’t?

After writing a first draft for this post I saw teachers on Twitter arguing that their primary goal was to make children well rounded *above* literacy and numeracy. I thought this was my job as a parent – and I sent my kids to school to deal largely with the academic aspects of that goal and to learn how to rub along socially etc as a useful byproduct. Through school kids do learn much more than academic subject matter but if as a teacher you are going to prioritise happiness, present and future, as an educational outcome ABOVE more measurable academic goals surely you need to know you are doing the right thing or you might just be wasting monumental amounts of time that could be devoted to more efficient ways of making kids cleverer? However, outside really broad societal norms that virtually all would agree on I suggest that we are all just guessing when it comes to forming well rounded happy individuals. If parenting or schooling are psychological engineering enterprises, we don’t really have a clue, do we? I can accept research helps us as teachers. The enormous weight of converging evidence on reading means I am happy to say what children need to learn to read confidently but learning to read is a very narrow goal. I am willing to apply principles suggested by Willingham and Dweck to my parenting and teaching although even here it gets dodgy. Have you noticed the different way these psychologists’ ideas have been applied by opposing groups in education? However, I’ve heard many teachers (mainly of younger children) claim they make happy children. Do they know the secrets of happiness?

It is easy to CLAIM your school produces happy children, well at least at primary level where it is simpler to produce ‘happy’ children to prove your point. At secondary level those sort of assertions are a bit more likely to bite you in the bum. Secondaries are more likely to stick to claims that can’t be disproved as easily like ‘we create life long learners’.

To me it does seem odd to even consider HOW you teach children as especially relevant to a child’s happiness or ability to cope with life. My eldest went to a very progressive primary, followed by a traditional prep school. They both claimed to be producing happy, well rounded children, though in markedly different ways! At both it was the state of her friendships that dictated my daughter’s happiness at the time. Next most influential was whether her teacher ‘got’ and appreciated her (obviously wonderful) personality. If the school had a low tolerance to playground nastiness that also helped. She was often lucky in those regards in both schools. Perhaps schools can offer activities that mean kids are ‘well rounded’ as in they have more life experiences. However, the implication of much I read is that the style of teaching (varying with ideological approach) makes a significant difference to happiness and psychological traits such as resilience. In France they do early years and later schooling very differently. Are French tots or young people intrinsically less happy or less well rounded? Are they happier long term? Goodness knows – but whatever people assert, we don’t know!

We might not know for sure what impact teaching style could have on a child’s long term prospects but there will always be clear disagreement among parents on the best way to achieve happiness for our kids. As I tell my A2 political ideologies students, it all boils down to different views of human nature, are humans naturally good or instinctively selfish? Your take on that will lead to clearly different priorities. Despite all my angst I do have some assumptions I believe and follow. Some of my friends think similarly for their children, some strongly disagree (harmonious toddler coffee mornings depend on knowing what you can say to whom!) Should state schools, a universal provision, be following theories about happiness (prioritised over acquiring numeracy an literacy) that are based on ideological assumptions possibly half the population will disagree with? If they do, should it be state mandated as with early years provision?

Finally, do we even know that the pursuit of creating ‘well rounded’ children is even desirable? Childhood difficulties shape us and often give us our strengths. I go to great lengths to avoid my own children being unhappy but humans do learn from suffering. The most unbalanced individuals have probably achieved most for humanity. That said, to suggest you want to nurture happy, well rounded children is uncontroversial but I do know that I could never claim to have the answer myself.

@oldandrewuk has written a much more lucid and detailed piece on happiness as an aim in education that I’m sure has shaped my thoughts over the last year or so – here.


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