As we gear up to celebrate the ‘International Day of Happiness’, do we have time, and empathy, to look at our own children to find if they’re really happy?
Usually, my morning walks are witness to a lot of stories that give me many insights to how people think and feel. And, to be honest, the titbits I overhear while I am walking around the park makes me more sensitive about people and their problems — often less judgemental and so much more aware.
Recently, though, I heard something, which kind of worried me. A conversation between two teenagers, as they made their way back home after finishing their early morning tennis lessons made me think, and think hard.
“Hey, why do you always look so glum during practice, such a great player as you are…” asked one to the other, “Everyone talks about how you are soon going to be representing our state, the way you’re going… Doesn’t that excite you?”
To this, the other replied, “I’m too tired to be excited, bro. Can I stop at exceling at tennis? No! I have to top my class as well, I have to be the best swimmer as well, and every Friday of the week, I have to train to become the best elocutionist there ever was!”
“Oh! But I thought you loved being an all-rounder,” the first one was visibly surprised. “What can I say, I am clearly a better actor than a tennis player,” and the two broke into a peal of laughter.
This conversation has stayed with me like an uncomfortable soreness in my mind. Later in the day, I got into a meeting with my colleagues where I came to know that recently West Bengal State Commission for Protection of Child Rights had come up with an advisory to the teachers and parents — which insisted that mental well-being of students would have to be a focal area in the school curriculum.
It was just a passing comment from one of my colleagues, but the information hit me with a surge. Such a brilliant idea it seemed! And, it raised the question that often kept coming back to me — are our children really happy? Happiness is not the opposite of depression, you know — being happy is not the opposite of struggling with mental stress.
But depression or mental health issues definitely create major obstacles in the path of happiness. Happiness can come from small joys; and so does depression as it makes people dysfunctional as a result of pile up of small disappointments.
As we see, the education system today thrives on cut-throat competition where every half a mark matters. Extra-curricular activities are not about what children like, neither they aim at recreation.
They have turned into activities that would look good on their resumes, or give them alternative career options, or give parents an option to showcase “good-parenting” in a competitive world. Seldom do we take time out to discuss and understand the world of our children’s feeling — are they really happy, and not just keeping up with the rat-race that they are being forced to run?
Almost every child in urban and peri-urban areas starts their day with a morning fitness routine, getting around to schools, extra tuitions after school, co-curricular activity classes and pending homework in the evening before they retire to bed, completely exhausted. While parents will argue that in order to build a good life for themselves in this age, such routines have become mandatory, what is constantly being ignored is how this adds to the stress levels of children.
And, as the world gears up to celebrate the International Happiness Day on the 20th of March, it is worth-asking if our children are really happy? What are we doing to de-stress them and listen to what they want.
Let’s put it into perspective. Is there a way to excel without taking stress? Can we help our children manage stress from when they are young? The answer to all these questions is ‘yes’. And, since the next question is ‘how’, the answer to that is a fruitful triad between the children, their parents and their schools.
Let us start with the schools. Today we are well aware that many schools do employ trained counsellors or therapists who are always accessible by students to discuss anything that concerns them.
However, while all schools can go the route of hiring trained professionals, it is also important to take mental health issues seriously, to normalise conversation around it and to regularise open discussions on it while taking serious steps to create awareness. This does not only increase a child’s faith in the school, it lets them know that school is a safe space, thus lifting part of the stress from their minds.
Parents can play a very crucial role by the simple act of active listening and conversations that are non-judgemental, in turn also sharing with children their own worries about the competitive world and jointly finding solutions. When parents let their children know that they’re listening, it is often found that children open up, unload and stop holding back their fears.
In their own way, they understand that their parents are human beings too, who can feel vulnerable at times, and trust their children and share the vulnerabilities and worries with them.
Normalising discussions around stress, worries, fears, vulnerabilities (mental health) make family a space where children can be themselves at all times. And isn’t that what we all want? Our society still treats mental health as a taboo and many parents fall victim to the system and go into denial.
This results in children feeling abandoned by the people they love the most, and that has repercussions that result in mental health problems like general anxiety disorder or even schizo-affective (disorder) spectrum. An openness in accepting children as they are helps create a supportive environment for the children and a stronger bond between children, parents and significant others in their lives.
It is extremely important in the entire scheme of things is for children to feel that they have a safe space to voice their feelings, fears and concerns. CRY — Child Rights and You works with underprivileged children in many states across the country, and our experiences show that their reasons for stress and unhappiness are often very different from the school-going children in the cities.
Some of them are fighting gender inequality, and some are working as child labourers to cope with the financial crisis at home, while some are trying to protect themselves from the various crimes committed against children and some are trying to convince their parents that they are not yet ready to be married off.
Even in such cases, CRY encourages open conversation with parents, care givers and the community members to create an open and safe environment for the children.
CRY forms children’s groups in its intervention areas where children are encouraged to not only talk about their distress, but also figure out solutions through discussions, taking help from the adults wherever required.
These groups give them a space for recreational activities such as sports, music and dance or art and craft, and also provide them a platform where their voices are heard and amplified. From our experience, this process is extremely effective for boost in children’s confidence and self-worth.
Therefore at CRY we feel that exposing all children to this kind of a platform may help them cope better with their stress levels, thus reducing unhappy childhoods.
So this International Day of Happiness, let us pledge to listen to our children more, to be more open to what makes them really happy, and to give them a space where they can be themselves and enjoy childhood — a time they will never get back!
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