This is my response, from a parent perspective, to Angela's post Designing Compassionate Classrooms: Lessons from the Lotus Flower.
If you ask any parent what they want for their children they inevitably will tell you "I want them to be happy." But what do they really mean?
The term "happiness" often gets a bad rap, as many people tend to equate happiness with hedonism or self-indulgent pleasure. But happiness as it is studied and defined by positive psychologists such as Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar expands the concept to include the pursuit of pleasure + meaning + strengths, and reminds us that our daily practices can lead us on a path to become "happier." Dr. Martin Seligman has dedicated his career to helping people pursue "authentic happiness," using the term "flourishing" to refer to positive emotions + engagement + positive relationships + accomplishment (PERMA) as a model for happiness.
Happiness as our mission
This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending the World Happiness Summit at University of Miami, where Mo Gawdat, author of Solve for Happy: Engineering Your Path to Joy, declared boldly that happiness is a birthright. To be happy is our mission. And as parents, our purpose is to teach our kids how to be happy.
Becoming happier through compassion
This former Google X high-wage-earning engineer-turned-social entrepreneur had discovered that the more successful and wealthier he became, the less happy he was. He realized that being happy as our life's purpose did not align with how his parents and grandparents raised him (and how most of us were brought up): to do well in school, have a successful career, and acquire material wealth so we can live comfortably and be free from worry.
With teen suicide at an all time high, and one in every four people admitting to being clinically depressed, Mo believes it is time to take action and spread the mission of happiness to others. By spreading happiness through compassionate acts, he considers happiness and compassion to be one and the same.
Raising good kids
Mo's suggestion is simple and elegant: "the best way to raise wonderful children is to be a wonderful parent."
"Happiness education starts with parenting. If we as parents prioritize happiness, schools will follow."
And he argues that teaching happiness should be taught. At home, as well as part of the school curriculum.
So, if happiness is what we want for our children, what is the best way for us as parents to teach them to become happier, to flourish?
Drawing from the wisdom of the lotus flower
I believe that we can look to the the lotus flower for parenting wisdom. With its roots mired in the mud, the lotus flower retreats to the murky water every night, only to miraculously emerge each morning with its petals blooming all over again, unblemished by the mud. Like the lotus flower, parents are often in murky waters of uncertainty, having to make a continuous series of decisions -- small and large, important and consequential -- to guide their children, as all of them struggle to do the best they can. Like the daily cycle of the lotus, parents faithfully lead themselves and their children toward a better life, in a process of ever increasing detachment, with another chance to bloom anew and become happier each day, despite its stems being rooted in the muddy waters.
Teaching our children to become happier means to live happy lives, by example. To practice happiness and compassion, and to make that our priority and our focus.
Mo's young son, whose life was cut short by a series of tragic medical mistakes, taught his father to understand happiness as a life-long process, rather than a goal to achieve. He used the analogy of a video game, where it's all about enjoying the game, the playing, and not getting to the end of the game. Instead of chasing happiness, we should "invest in our own happiness, and find the compassion in us to spread the message of happiness to others," Mo argues.
Defining, aligning, and refining our way to happiness
If it's all about enjoying the game of life, and not chasing some end goal, how might this view of happiness align with how we are raising our children? The rules in our home? Our own daily practices and activities? How are we modeling happiness and compassion for them? In other words, is what we are doing to lead our children to happiness consistent with what we really want for them? And how are we reinforcing this perspective in our parenting?
Again, we can draw guidance from the lotus flower. As Angela outlined in her post about the response able teacher and parent, our lotus flower has "three purposeful petals."
Each petal "invites us to define, align, and refine our principles, policies, and practices, whether we're teachers or parents."
Here are some general questions to play with, as we begin to:
What are your goals for your children?
What do you most value?
What do you mean by wanting your children to be happy?
What are the principles that underly your compassionate home?
How do you support and model your values for happiness and success?
How do you model happiness? Kindness? Gratitude?
With your own behavior?
With your messages to your children?
With your house rules and guidelines?
How do your practices align with the policies and practices of your child's classroom? School?
Do they align with your values, hopes and dreams for your child?
What might you do to refine your parenting decisions so that you are guiding your children according to your definition of happiness and compassion?
How might you be more mindful of how your interactions with your children align with your core values and expectations for their behavior?
What might you attend to in order to honor and cultivate their strengths and positive qualities?
The process in practice
Parents I have worked with are continually struggling with how to support their children to do well in school while at the same time living their values about the importance of cultivating their emotional well being, making time for building and maintaining friendships, their need for free play, and honoring their family's needs for physical movement, sporting activities, and living a healthy lifestyle.
Often these struggles center around homework, which many times requires a great deal of after and before school time and competes with time needed to meet the basic needs of children and teens. As a parent, I have found it difficult to enforce homework requirements when I knew that my child had been sitting at a desk all day and needed time to play outside, or I felt it was more important for his overall happiness and well-being to participate in his baseball team's after-school double-header, or rehearsal for the spring musical. It was especially challenging for me to insist on homework being done when as a teen my son was volunteering after school to help kids with disabilities, or making videos to motivate other kids to be more compassionate towards each other.
Situations like these are where we as parents are forced to define what they really want for their kids, compare how our values and attitudes align with what teachers are requiring of our students, and refine our expectations and rules about homework.
Becoming response able parents
If we truly want our kids to lead happy lives, it behooves us to become response able parents who support their process of becoming happy. And with that response ability comes our parenting challenge to continually define, align and refine, as we draw stability from our uncertainty, like the roots of the lotus flower.
Inviting parents and teachers to define, align, and refine
Angela and I have intentionally created this space to have these sometimes muddy conversations. Whether you're a parent, teacher, student, and/or work with children or teens in any way, we invite you to subscribe to our website, and to join our free and open exchange of ideas on Facebook and Twitter @EllenFeigGray and @AngelaStockman.