(Photograph: my youngest son Jack and his grandfather (mine). This photograph defines success to me).
We have brought up five kids, my children’s father and I. I had my first child whilst I was still at school, and the others came in rapid succession when I was at University (our last child, Georgina, was a luxury, she came much later).
Of course, we didn’t have maids.
Our family became something of a minor celebrity in Asia, where we moved to ten years ago. My youngest child couldn’t read properly until she was 8, and I was anti tuition. It was an alien concept to me, these hours of additional studying, just to make sure our kids get higher marks in exams than other similarly hothoused (but not necessarily smarter) kids. What in the blazes for??
So we opted out of the gold rush and taught our kids how to plant bananas instead.
My children’s father did not come from a rich background, so we were not insouciant because of the privilege of wealth. His father was a bus-driver who had to hold down three jobs at one stage to keep the family housed, clothed and fed. My mother-in-law was a cleaner. They lived in a house that was sub-divided and rented out. Not many boys from my children’s father’s school went on to further education. He was one of those who did.
I am glad he did not push our children to succeed academically, despite having his life changed because he passed exams and had opportunities that he would not otherwise have had. I am glad he did not think that there is anything wrong in his children becoming a bus driver, because his father was one. I am glad that he emerged from his financially poor childhood with the realisation that one can be financially poor, but still be happy and fulfilled. He often says, the best prize to him about having the opportunity was that he met me.
So we brought our children up against the tide. I am sure many people think we are insane, thus it is nice to read a new research and listen to a TED talk that corroborates what we have always believed in (http://www.bakadesuyo.com/2014/09/be-more-successful/). In a nutshell, it is about a child’s happiness. This thesis is by Shawn Anchor, on the subject of happiness and success. This happiness thing is a big deal these days – prominent professors of economics have published research on it. Check out the Centre for Economics Performance at London School of Economics – lots of research here on the subject of happiness.
Happiness? Eh? Shouldn’t parents be more worried about good exam results to lead to that place in that prestigious university, so that big-name employers chase Ah Boy/Ah Girl with that important job that guarantees success for life?
Happiness brings success. Not my words, but Shawn Anchor’s (a view shared by various psychologists in the field). Shawn looked at a low socio-economic school in Chicago where academic grades were below average, yet a couple of students have skyrocketing grades. That was enough to pull my interest, as my children’s father went to a similar school.
So are these students genetically more intelligent? I can’t comment, as I do not know them personally but one thing I know for sure, my children’s father is not that intelligent. Anchor believes that intelligence and technical skills only predict 25% of success. The other 75% is optimism, social connection and the way you perceive stress. Bingo!
Anchor’s definition: the belief that your behaviour matters in the midst of challenge. Yes, it is the mindset. Does your kid crumple into a heap and is paralysed when life deals him with a blow?
My children’s father always tells our kids, “Don’t worry, be happy.”
I have to rein in the Asian Tiger Mum in me sometimes. “Waaah, doan worry??? Got Chemistry exam tomorrow, wor, Ah Beng!”
As proof that mums are always right, the afore-mentioned child dropped a grade or two for entry to the degree course of his choice. But with his father’s eternal sunshine burning forever bright in him, he took the train to Southampton and asked for his place on the highly competitive engineering degree course.
“You will drop out,” his pessimistic mum predicted. “It’s a tough course, and I won’t be around to nag you. The bottom line is, you have to convince me that you really want it before I help you financially.”
Now, I hate to be the sort of person who rains on others’ parade, but I believe that it is my duty to provide this second son of mine with reality check and ask for some sort of insurance before I spend my money.
He did provide it, in his own way and on his own terms: he went out to get a sponsorship for the three years of his degree course. And his masters degree.
Was this child of mine super-intelligent? In one word, No. Much as I, like all parents, would like to believe that my children are superhumanbeings.
Anchor’s definition: whether or not you have depth and breadth in your social relationships.
The first thing I thought about when I read this sentence was oh no, networking and all that rubbish. But no, the author of this study actually meant one’s ability to form meaningful relationships.
It reminded me of the tale that my children’s father often tells. He left South East London and went for his further education in my hometown. He shared digs with a mad Greek called Georges Tsimoupoulous, who he is still pals with almost 40 years later. That was bad enough, but at that time, by coincidence, a bunch of Gibraltarian boys from his hometown was also at the polytechnic. So they did very little studying, a lot of drinking and even more womanising. His enduring memory is throwing someone’s final thesis out of the window from the third floor of the Engineering building in Anglessey Road.
“How did you pass your exams?” I was aghast.
“Oh, we bought notes from the Chinese students who spent the full three years in their rooms swotting and eating instant noodles,” he said winsomely.
Note: I do not condone that sort of behaviour, but this man became very good at what he does – he won a coveted place to do research at the National Maritime Museum, despite his high jinks, and interestingly, Anchor found that students who live in the library and eat meals in their rooms do not perform better. They are more likely to suffer burnout.
Hmm, I don’t know about burnouts, but one thing I know (by logical extension) – these students suffer from personality deficit disorder or some sort of a zombie affliction. Nah, I wouldn’t employ them.
Basically, what you see as stress is a block to success.
What I see is parents (and often school) adding on to a kid’s stress.
I do find it hard to say “Don’t worry, be happy” about weak exam grades, but I am glad I have a partner who grins about it and makes comments such as “Isn’t she magnificent” irrespective of what she achieves or not achieves on a piece of paper (and here is the surprising piece, she achieves, more often than not).
This is one thing I have observed: some stress is good, but if you get the ingredients right, that sort of organic stress comes from within a child who wants to do well, rather than out of fear of letting the parents down.
Pleasingly, the author of this quoted study mentioned that those who perceives stress as enhancing, ‘a challenge instead of threat’, are more likely to see an improvement in their levels of engagement at work.
Now, this is the piece in the study that pleases the yogi in me: the author found that by providing social support to others, his students at Harvard are doing better for themselves too.
So teaching your child to genuinely help others rather than view their peers as competition is a good thing. Strange as it may sound. It starts with teaching your child how to make friends, and how to appreciate those friends, especially those who are different and annoying.
In conclusion, it ain’t that difficult to raise a child. What that is difficult is getting rid of parental ego and unrealistic expectations. Now everybody, please download the song “Don’t worry, be happy” and sing it at the top of your voice with your children. It works 😉
My six ways of raising a happy child:
Enjoy your child – find things to do with them that are not goal-related
Talk to each other on car journeys
Find time to do nothing
Play the yogi laughter game – lie on each other’s tummies and laugh non-stop for 1 minute – at least once a fortnight
Thank your child for the small things he/she does for you
Spend time outdoors in nature, much as you may dislike it.