I think it goes without saying that most parents want their children to be happy. If we could protect our children from all the unhappiness in the world, I’m sure we would. Unfortunately, we can’t. Thankfully, there are things we can do to increase their chances for overall happiness in life.
Well, according to the Grant Study, the one thing that makes us consistently happy are our relationships with other people. In other words, having good friends is the key to happiness in life. If you want your child to be happy, then the best thing you can do is to teach him how to make friends and keep them – he needs to learn how to socialise effectively.
While there are many things required to raise a child who is socially smart, Brain Rules for Baby highlights two key ingredients that have the strongest backing in neuroscience:
- Emotional Regulation
Individuals with the ability to regulate their emotions are more likely to deeper, more lasting friendships, and lower divorce rates. These individuals are more thoughtful, kind, sensitive, outward focused, accommodating, and forgiving – characteristics of “nice” people. And science has shown that we are more likely to maintain deep, long-term friendships with people who are nice.
On the flip side of the coin, individuals who lack the ability to regulate their emotions are usually moody, impulsive, rude, self-centered, inflexible, and vindictive. These individuals are also more likely to have poor executive function. So not only does executive function predict a smarter child in future, it also indicates an individual who is more likely to make friends and maintain friendships.
What is emotional regulation? Here is an example from Brain Rules for Baby:
“Suppose you are at a play with some friends, watching a moving scene from the musical Les Misérables. It’s the strangely powerful (some say sappy) song “Bring Him Home.” You know two things: a) when you cry, you really sob, and b) this scene can really skewer you. To save yourself from social humiliation, you reappraise the situation as you sit in your seat listening and attempt to suppress your tears. You succeed—barely. This overruling is emotional regulation.”
Although there is nothing wrong with crying, it seems that the ability to over-rule your emotions is a good predictor for being able to make lots of friends. So if you want your child to be happy, you need to teach him how to filter his emotions.
Empathy – the ability to perceive the needs of another person and respond with kindness and understanding – provides the glue to a friendship. It appears that the level of empathy a person display is subject to individual variation that is partly genetic. Yes, some of us are simply born more empathetic than others. According to Science Daily, it is the children who demonstrated fearless behaviour who were less empathetic (oh dear – Gareth is as fearless as they come).
Although there is a genetic component to empathy, it can still be affected by social and cultural influences, so all is not lost. There are many things you can do to help your child develop empathy, but here’s one thing you should avoid: giving your child a cellphone too early. The following story from Brain Rules for Baby may only be one case demonstrating why, but its implications are alarming nonetheless:
“A 9-year-old girl decided to invite five or six of her closest friends to her very first slumber party. The girl’s mother, a sociologist by training, was delighted. She remembered her own childhood sleepovers, and she anticipated nonstop talking, pillow fights, whispering secrets in the dark, and giggles at 2 a.m. That never happened. As her daughter’s friends gathered together, Mom immediately noticed things that set her sociologist’s Spidey instincts tingling. The discourse between the girls seemed not like that of typical 9-year-olds, whose social exchanges can be surprisingly sophisticated, but more emotionally immature, like that of 4-year-olds. The culprit appeared to be the girls consistent misreading and misinterpreting of each other’s nonverbal cues. Mom also saw that within 30 minutes of the start of the party, five of the six girls had pulled out their cell phones. They were busily texting friends who weren’t there, taking pictures and sending them off. This continued throughout the day. Deep into the night, around 2 a.m., everything was absolutely still. Mom snuck upstairs to make sure everything was OK. Half the girls had gone to sleep. The other half were still on their cell phones, little screens glowing underneath the sheets.”
Extrapolate this story and suddenly the incident about Bill Nye’s collapse resulting in witnesses tweeting about the event rather than rushing forward to help him no longer sounds so surprising – still alarming, but not so surprising. If that isn’t enough of a concern, then the cancer risk associated with cell phone proximity ought to be.