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Children Tell Adults about What Makes Them Feel Happy

By Yvette Vignando – 28th October 2011

  “…if I could ask any child what they would like in the world I would definitely ask it. I think it would be interesting to find out what everyone’s ideas are. What they want…” (14-year old girl)

When we are asked what we want most for our children, most of us will answer “happiness”. Asking children about what contributes to their feelings of wellbeing reveals some insightful answers to how we can provide that happy life.

A study, conducted by the NSW Commission for Children and Young People and published in 2007, highlighted the importance of adults using parenting and educational practices that promote children’s emotional and social well-being. In the Ask the Children report, children from New South Wales aged 8 to 15 identified nine themes that contributed to their feeling happy and well. The following were considered fundamental:

  • Positive Sense of Self – feeling that they are “okay” or a good person, and being seen this way by the people around them.
  • Security – having a sense of security so they can engage fully with life and do the things they need and want to do.
  • Agency – having a feeling of control and ability to take some independent actions in everyday life.

These findings echo research from the field of positive psychology (the scientific study of human strengths and virtues that allow individuals and communities to thrive). That research indicates that the happiest adults:

  • spend time with, and have strong ties to families and friends
  • feel that they are contributing to their community, and
  • have a degree of control over their lives.

Yet, government and policy makers continue to insist that schools focus on traditional academic outcomes such as increased numeracy and literacy, and more recently it has also been suggested that teachers’ salaries should be linked to achieving these goals.

Academic achievement is of course important, but alone, it does not provide the building blocks for our children developing into fulfilled, successful and caring adults. The simple fact is that children are much more likely to fulfill their academic potential if their emotional and social needs are met. Although at this stage, teachers are not expected to provide a full social and emotional education to students, most are likely to agree that children may not be able to achieve their full academic potential if they lack emotional and social competence.

The Ask the Children report made this message clear – if we create home and school environments where children feel safe, feel good about themselves and have a sense of ability to influence what is happening around them, then we are investing in one of the most important aspects of our children’s development.

Questions for Parents About Their Child’s Education

As parents and educators, we need to note the many good reasons to incorporate some of the fundamental principles of social and emotional education into our everyday interactions with children. The National School Climate Center, formerly called the Center for Social and Emotional Education (New York) provided a guide to our children learning the basic social and emotional skills. Some questions to ask ourselves and our schools include:

  • Is my child learning to be reflective? Is my child learning to think about his or her actions instead of being reactive only?
  • Is my child learning to be empathic? Does my child try to understand how other people might be feeling and then react compassionately to those feelings?
  • Is my child learning how to identify problems and then solve them in a socially-responsible way?
  • Is my child learning to recognise and name his or her own feelings and then manage them appropriately, for example by sometimes expressing them in words rather than actions?
  • Is my child learning to communicate effectively (verbally and nonverbally) and to listen well?
  • Is my child learning to co-operate with others and work with others in a collaborative and non-competitive way? For example, can my child listen to different points of view, take turns, include others and recognise the skills and contributions of other children to a task?
  • Is my child learning to form and sustain good friendships while still maintaining a strong sense of his or her own identity?
  • Is my child learning to take interest in the concerns and problems of other people and to show care for them?

Some of these questions will be familiar to readers of literature on good leadership, successful human resources practices and teamwork. When your children apply for their first job, you can be sure that their prospective employers are not only interested in academic results and technical skills. Many employers know that their best employees demonstrate and understand the importance of the skills described above.

Apart from equipping our children with skills needed to be successful at work, the Ask the Children report also highlighted other common hopes we have for our families. Dr Martin Seligman, academic and author in the field of positive psychology, describes a state of happiness as consisting of three elements: the pleasant, the engaged and the meaningful life, and these are mirrored in the answers children gave in the Report.

Children said that their feelings of well-being were also supported by:

being involved in fun activities and having a reasonable standard of living (the pleasant life):
“playing what they like to play and … using their own moves” (9-year old girl)

and, by being a good person (the engaged life):
“…you do nice things to other people or are you very kind…” (10-year old girl)

and by having a sense of values to use in everyday life (the meaningful life):
“…if you are in a situation and if you have to make a choice and you have to… look at it from all angles… using your better judgment. [Knowing] what is right and wrong…” (14-year old girl)

Children also said that being able to face and deal with adversity contributed to their resilience and therefore their feelings of well-being.

We can have a positive influence on our children’s happiness by taking a more wholistic approach to their education and parenting. If we choose and demand classroom techniques and curricula that develop socially and emotionally competent students, we are more likely to have happy and successful children who will be the employees of choice in the future. Those children will be well equipped to establish strong social networks and satisfying personal relationships, and to pursue a life that reflects their values and allows them to use their strengths. By also striving to improve our parenting practices to include approaches that develop emotionally intelligent children, we really are giving our children the very best chance of a happy, successful and meaningful life.


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