Monday, November 21, 2011

The cost of family happiness- Priceless: Investing in the promotion of family and school community values written by our Guest Clinical Psychologist Prof. Paula Barrett and Jacqueline Bermingham @ Pathways Health and Research Centre

In western society, we tend to conflate material wealth with the state of happiness, considering a well-paid job, a nice house, a luxurious car, access to fine dining and lavish entertainment as tantamount to a fulfilled and joyful life.

This is not the case, evidenced by the fact that many citizens of developing nations in serious financial strain still laugh and play, dance and sing, give and receive affection, as well as make and share simple traditional food with their loved ones and their communities.

The fact is, depression, anxiety and suicide are more prevalent in countries with a high SES, where divorce rates and statistics surrounding blended families are the highest in the world. It seems that material wealth does not create life-long happiness in human beings.

When we research the literature about the factors contributing to the happiness of children, adults and families alike, some common factors continually arise. Research shows that happy families create traditions by sharing meals and feelings around the table, having fun and playing games together, praising and supporting one another, as well as nurturing spirituality and regularly showing affection (through hugs and kisses).

Creating Traditions as a Family

Happy families celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, festivities and the achievement of milestones together. Family connections are grown and strengthened by recognizing and praising, for example, the entrance into, or completion of schooling, as well as celebrating the participation in and achievements associated with sporting or extra-curricular activities. Supporting and praising the accomplishments of all members of the family - parents and children alike, is essential to family cohesion and connectedness. Whether celebration be in the form of cooking special meals, going on a day-outing, or even the simple writing of a ‘thankyou’ or ‘well done’ letter or drawing, families need to support and express their love, appreciation and admiration.

Many children grow up in situations where they have many material possessions, but seldom sit around a table to share a meal with their own family. Sharing a candle-lit meal with your family at least two or three times a week, with no rush or stress involved, only simple, healthy food is a very important life bonding experience. It is a unique opportunity to share each other’s life experiences and learn from others on how to deal with common challenges. It also provides an opportunity for learning manners and other social etiquette behaviours.

Having fun, playing, joking and seeing the funny side of life is a wonderful catalyst to overcoming one’s ups and downs. Usually in the future we look back on these incidents as ‘funny’ occurrences that created family history. Children learn to appropriately joke about things with their parents and older siblings, which is a healthy way of dealing with conflicts and issues.

Mundane tasks do not need to be unpleasant and hard. Working together can actually make difficult tasks seem that much easier and fun. For instance, cleaning up after a long meal, keeping a garden thriving and healthy, or tidying a park or bushland is so much easier and more enjoyable to do as a family group rather than alone as an individual.

Sharing spirituality is also very important as it helps us transcend our sense of mortality, contributing to the wider community. Nurturing spirituality together, whether that be through organised religious rituals or through the simple expression of gratitude and counting one’s blessings, makes us feel grateful about what we have, instead of negatively focussing on what we don’t.

One of the most valuable family traditions is the giving of time to volunteer at charitable organisations, assisting the well being of select groups in society.

These include, abandoned/mistreated animals, the elderly, children suffering from serious illness, caring for the environment, learning to be a life-saver, helping the homeless or refugees. These family values not only increase children’s self esteem by learning that they can make a difference themselves towards the well being of others but also teaches children other important family values such as ‘what can I do for my family’, ‘what can I do for my community’, and ‘what can I do for my country’, rather than being a passive recipient. Long term this will create a more compassionate and altruistic society.

Utilising natures playground is also an important part of family bonding. Often simple, easy and inexpensive activities such as walking or running in the bushland, climbing trees, playing in creeks, riding bicycles or roller-blading, swimming in the ocean and watching native wildlife create very powerful learning experiences. Such opportunities for life-long memory making cannot be replicated by expensive, man-made toys. Man-made toys date and become obsolete, but natural experiences have a unique and indefinite quality about them creating shared family memories and values.

Reflecting on Traditions

Children can become so involved in ‘new’ experiences and ‘new’ toys, alienating them from their family traditions. The importance of family time spent together, doing simple activities that promote creativity, gratitude, and connections with nature and across generations is second to none. Quality family time together is the forum for the growth, development and physical and mental health of all family members.

A simple example comes from traditions around cooking and eating behaviour. Jamie Oliver’s UK campaign to revolutionise eating behaviours and school meals advocates that children of all ages, parents, grandparents and teachers be involved in the planting, gathering, preparation, cooking, eating and cleaning up of food - all stages of food product and consumption.  Moreover, the enjoyment of simple, organic, easy to prepare meals is an extremely important family value which promotes positive mental and physical health, and helps to reduce obesity.

Other examples of simple, affordable family activities that promote inter-generational positive values, are little things such as walking to places together, playing in backyards and parks together, creating family challenges (eg this year we are going to climb Mt Warning to see the first light of the new year), learning to body-surf a wave together, building and flying a kite together, planning and going on a picnic together, making damper or popcorn, making cards and gifts from recycled, used materials, creating bedtime rituals, doing drawings, writing a poem or note or playing a special song for each other.

A very powerful tradition practiced in some Nordic countries as part of the curriculum in late primary school requires every child to interview an elderly family member. They need to ask them about the foods they ate, the clothes they wore, the environment of their schools, their first jobs, their family activities and the overall best memories from their childhood.

Family traditions help to develop a sense of identity and belonging across generations. They form the essence of the most powerful memories into adulthood.

Our diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds ought to be celebrated and shared within the school environment. In a way, family traditions cannot be taught in the traditional schooling sense, but can only be learned by doing and being celebrated.  School communities play an integral role in creating such family traditions. When schools involve grandparents, through ‘grandmother’ or ‘grandfather’ days in which all children in the school community share the experience of bringing family into the school setting, lasting family traditions and fantastic memories are made. These will never leave those children, even well into their adulthood.

The World Health Organisation states that the two biggest issues costing governments the most in health expenditure is not heart disease or cancer. It is obesity and life-style diabetes, as well as anxiety and depression due to social isolation and lack of family and community values. Knowing this, we need to start allocating our creativity and efforts to ensure that value is attached to the time with family members, teachers, and society elders alike, cooking simple healthy food, planting community gardens, and playing sport together.

We are only going to become a healthier society if we start to mobilise together - that is, making a habit of walking, being active, spending more time in nature, enjoying the outdoors AND less time in front of screens, and participating ‘vicariously’ through the activities of others on television.

Values are deep constructs - deep issues in the emotional development of a child. Deep issues are not taught through a manual or a book, but through LIVING those values.


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Professor Paula Barrett and Jacqueline Bermingham
Pathways Health and Research Centre