On the danger that I am stepping on dangerous ground here, I am giving some pointers to the difficult area of parenting. Not that I am an expert in that field. Not at all! However, I know that many people worry about their parenting style. They are concerned whether they do it right by their children and end up with lots of self-blame for not getting it right. I’ve been reading the book ‘Authentic Happiness’ (by M. Seligman, 2002, Free Press). And it has a section on how to build positive emotions in children!
I was curious to find out what building positive emotions in children comprises off. Seligman, the author of the book describes his own parenting experiences with his children (three) that were greatly influenced by principles of positive psychology and other theories, i.e. developmental theory and attachment theory.
“When a young organism (child, kitten, or puppy) experiences negative emotions it runs for cover – or, if there is no safe, familiar location to hide, it freezes in place. Once it feels safe and secure again, it leaves its refuge and ventures out into the world. Evolution has seen to it that when young organisms are safe, they feel positive emotion, and they will reach outward and broaden their resources by exploring and playing” (Authentic Happiness, page 209)
So, an important part of raising children is making them feel safe. Seligman suggests a few techniques’ for building positive emotions in children:
Sleeping with your Baby
Having the baby sleep with the parents creates strong bonds of love and attachment. When the baby wakes up next to its parents it will not be fearful and its sense of security will build up. The baby has not to cry endlessly to have its needs met, which will lead to it feeling cherished and cared for. Also, sleeping with the baby gives fathers more opportunity to interact with the baby. – If you have time to read the book, Seligman shares a very humorous story of how he sang his 5 months old, crying daughter to sleep – it took 45 minutes!
Here Seligman refers to experiments in learned-helplessness research from the 1970s. Outcome of this research was that people (and animals) deteriorated. They became passive and depressed when they received shocks and had no control over the event. People (and animals) who received the same shock but were in control when and if they’ve got the shock, showed more activity, had positive affect, and their health improved. Thus learning that what you do matters and can control the outcome of events is an important component of mental health. The opposite creates depression, hopelessness, and possibly poor health.
Synchrony games help developing this skill in children. They can be played everywhere and anytime. What are synchrony games? For example: the child claps its hands – you clap in your hands. Any playful activity where you ‘copy’ the child’s actions in a friendly, playful way will build the child’s sense of being able to affect outcome.
Ideal toys for babies are toys that are built on the synchrony principle – meaning toys the baby can press, shake, and poke and that give a reaction: i.e. a rattle chatters when shaken; stackable blocks fall over when the baby knocks them; books and magazines can be torn up; old cardboard boxes can be turned into houses, caves, cars etc.
No and Yes
Seligman states here that “No is a very important word in the life of a child, since it signifies limits and dangers. But I believe it is used promiscuously and to the detriment of the child” (Authentic Happiness, page 218). He suggests using ‘No’ only in situations of danger, not because the parent in inconvenienced. So other words may be more suitable to build positive emotions in your child, i.e. gentle, easy, take care.
Praise and Punishment
While love, affection, and warmth absolutely need to be delivered unconditionally, praise and punishment should be related to the child’s actions. If a child is praised/punished indiscriminately from what it does, it may become passive because it does not have a sense of having control over its situation. It is unable to learn from its failures or successes.
The idea behind NOT having sibling rivalry in the family is based on providing abundant affection and attention to all members of the family. The arrival of a new baby in the family can be a difficult time for the older child who might fear to lose its parents hearts. Using the opportunity to promote the older child by giving him/her more trust and responsibility is seen as strengthening the child and prevent sibling rivalry (read more about this on pp 223-225 of Authentic Happiness).
Rather than limiting the bedtime ritual to a good night kiss, a prayer, watching tv, or a telling short story, Seligman proposes two activities of ‘Best moments’ and ‘dreamland’. To shape a positive mindset, for the ‘best–moments-activity the parent asks: “what did you like doing today”. After the child has listed all the good things that happened and nothing more comes when asked ‘anything else?’, the parent asks “Did anything bad happened”. When the child recalls bad things that happened the parent validates the experience.
The ‘dreamland’ game is based on research that dreaming and mood are connected. Depressed adults and children dream of loss, defeat, and rejection. To foster positive dreams Seligman asks his children to call up a happy picture in their mind, concentrate on it and give it a name. He then tells them (in a soothing, relaxing voice) to keep the picture in their head as they go to sleep, say the name of the picture over and over again, and have a dream about it. He found it increases the possibility that the kids have a happy dream about it.
New Year’s Resolutions
Under the principles of positive psychology, New Year’s resolutions are not about what you don’t want (– i.e. don’t want to smoke, don’t want to overeat, etc.) but what you want. It makes people to be more enthusiastic about their resolutions and gives more energy to the goals.
Oh dear, this article turned out to be much longer than I thought. I hope nobody fell asleep reading it but pick up one or even more pointers of how to go about parenting. These are Seligman’s ideas about parenting and they seemed to have worked for him and his family. Other people might have some interesting ways as well. I would be interested to hear about them!