Today I want to share with you a book that I have read, re-read, dog-eared and scribbled side notes in for the past 10 years or longer. I am not getting paid for this post, it’s not a review. I just wanted to share a philosophy that has been my north star through almost all of my parenting years.
The book is called The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, and it is written by Edward M. Hallowell, MD. I first came across Ed Hallowell when my oldest daughter was attending this incredible early childhood school. She was about five at the time. The school was invited to participate in a lecture series, and Ed Hallowell was one of the speakers. The venue was packed. There were hundreds of eager moms and dads ready to soak up any parenting advice he could share. And he was so good. He was a relaxed speaker who told stories about his own childhood, and stories about his experiences as a child psychiatrist. He was funny, interesting, sincere, and we all hung on his every word.
I bought his book and started reading it that night. I have a long history of devouring parenting and advice books (my latest find: Yes, Your Teenager is Crazy!) but this one was different. I had just met the author! He hooked me at the title of the first chapter, “What Do I Really Want for My Children”. Yes, Ed, tell me!! What do I want? He says it plainly, right there on page 2…
“…parents and teachers can greatly increase the chances that their children and students will grow up to be happy, responsible adults by instilling certain qualities that might not seem of paramount importance but in fact are — inner qualities such as optimism, playfulness, a can-do attitude, and connectedness…”
This was pretty revelatory for me at that moment. I had a daughter who was just entering kindergarten and she was my first. I definitely was thinking about reading and writing and math, and what should I do at home? and is she behind?, etc. Reading this one line written by an expert was so enlightening to me, it all just clicked. From that moment forward, life at home would never be about getting ahead, it would always be about creating joy and connectedness.
I eagerly read on into the night. In the chapter called, “Confident Can-Do Kids: Where Did They Come From?” I gleaned more nuggets of wisdom:
“…optimism in childhood is one of the chief variables that correlates with happiness in adulthood.” And then, “You can also teach optimism. You can model it yourself, and you can frequently make such statements as, ‘There is no problem that we as a team can’t solve.’ Such words may be lost on jaded adults but they sink in with children. And the more you believe that you can solve a problem, the more likely it is that you can and will.”
And so my new mantra became: Stay Optimistic!
Chapter 5 was the golden, juicy pear in the fruit bowl: Doctor Ed Hallowell’s five-step guide to the childhood roots of adult happiness. It’s all so simple to me now as I have put it into practice for years. I will try and paraphrase, but first I will tell you how I summed it up for myself…
Second new mantra: Indulge Their Curiosity!
You see, according to the cycle of five steps, part one is connectedness. My children had this already because they had loving parents and grandparents. (Sometimes kids aren’t as lucky, and this is when the importance of a coach or a teacher comes in.) Part two is play. I put a big checkmark here, too. My kids played night and day (and I had the messy house to prove it). Part three is practice. This was the part that was new to me. Did he mean, like practicing an instrument? Maybe. But more that that, I discovered that it meant practicing your “trade”, which for a child is their passion. It is what they are drawn to, where they experience flow. It could be an instrument, but it also could be riding a bike, or tending a garden. (It has to come from the child, though.) The practice leads to part four, mastery. And mastery leads you to the fifth part, which is recognition. Being recognized for doing something well, because you have practiced and mastered your craft, is what leads the child back to the beginning, back to the first and most important part. Hello, old friend, connectedness!
Here is what it looked like for my daughter: Indulge her curiosity, which was performing. Sign her up for classes, keep it fun. Over time, she practices and becomes better. She enjoys practicing, it makes her happy. One day she gets a compliment from her teacher, or from a family friend who has just watched her perform, or from his sister. She is recognized for her hard work. She is internally rewarded. She feels happy and connected to the people around her.
Boom! Happy childhood complete!
I am oversimplifying, of course. There are struggles and adversity along the way, there always are. But here is the fundamental reason why I practice the five steps…
“If you feel connected, you will always be able to deal with adversity.”
Are you blown away yet? Ed goes on to say:
” The skills we need to deal with adversity begin not with thoughts or instructions but with a feeling — a feeling of I can handle this. It is a feeling of No matter what happens, I can find a solution; a feeling of I have dealt with hard times and come out fine before; a feeling of Even when I feel lost, I always have somewhere to turn. You may call this feeling optimism; you may call it confidence; you may call it faith; you may call it hope. Whatever you call it, if you learn it young, you will probably never lose it. And if you do not learn it young, you probably never will.”
Did I mention all of this wisdom is just in the first third of the book? The rest of the book goes deeper into the five steps and what they look like. For me, though, at that point in my life with a five-year old and a one-year old at home, I was focused mainly on play. What exactly was the deeper value, and what could I do to facilitate their play even more?
On page 106, Dr. Hallowell says this:
” The skill of play, of being able to make creative use of time no matter where you are or what you are doing, is the skill that lies behind all discoveries, all advances, all creative activity. If you can play, you will always have a chance to be happy and to do something great.”
For me, they key word was creative. I was already very into art. I was an art major in college, and a graphic designer by trade. I definitely put out art supplies for my daughters every once in a while, but was I really providing them with the full artistic experience? I was not. I honestly think I was too afraid of the mess. We had very little space in our house at the time, and I didn’t make it a priority. But reading this book created a change in me that forever impacted our lives. I decided to make a dedicated art area. I bought new supplies, I organized them on shelves, and I began to leave out simple invitations. Sometimes it would be some watercolor paints and paper, other times play dough and some plastic tools. They were opportunities for my girls to express themselves in a different language, and it was an opportunity to play.
One of Dr. Hallowell’s more famous quotes is this one:
” In childhood, talent usually shows up in play. If you want to find out what your child might have a gift for, look at her play.”
My girls both were (and still are) passionate about performing. They would sing and dance all day when they were kids (still do). Even though they grew up with art every day, it was never their passion. But now that they are teenagers, I can fully appreciate and understand why I continued to set out tables full of art materials and invite them to create. It was my way to connect with them. It’s hard to predict what they will remember from their childhood when they are adults, but I do know that it will be more of a feeling than of concrete events. That feeling of being loved unconditionally, of being able to express themselves without judgment, of having a voice within a family, of being recognized for their hard work and their talents. All of this is to say, I know they will carry with them a feeling of joy.
One last, poignant quote from the book is this:
” The best preparation for dealing with intense pressure in adult life, for actually enjoying pressure in adult life, is not subjecting a child to pressure before he or she is ready. Just the opposite. It is giving him or her the chance to develop the muscles of confidence, optimism, and hope, which can only be built slowly, on a unique, lazy summer morning we call childhood.”
My philosophy on parenting is this: Stay optimistic, indulge their curiosity, let them play, invite them to create, encourage their voice, and always end the day with connection.
Thank you, Ed Hallowell, for laying the groundwork.