Monday, 18 May 2015

Puddles and Pyramids. The Strange Advice we give to our Kids in the Quest for Happiness.

Dancing in the rain (and mud)
Happiness is about learning to dance in the rain? Perhaps. But such a statement has more than just ‘motivational quote’ value when you’ve just come back off the school run in “Scottish Summer Time”. 

The younger of my two bedraggled monsters doesn’t seem to mind the affront to seasonal normality, jumping in every puddle she can find, taking extra detours at the prospect of deeper and more satisfying splashes. It bothers me not. She has waterproofs and wellies, and to be honest, her happiness is the one thing keeping me warm on this woeful May morning.
For my eldest, the hunched shoulders and tip-toeing avoidance tactics tell a different story. I’m not going to bother with the “Oh well, at least we won’t have to water the flowers” line. At 8.55am on Monday morning, I don’t need to see the sulk on her face to tell me it won’t be appreciated.

Sometimes however, we deliver these little pieces of advice or consolation to our children, almost on automatic pilot; like we’ve pre-agreed a set of lessons in our head that can be rolled out whenever the occasion allows, to reinforce the necessary learning on the way to adulthood. Every so often however, there comes a moment when we might say something that has such damaging or profound consequences that we stop to think. Should I really say this? Should I say it now? Should I wait? What if I’m wrong?

With the caveat that I’ve long accepted there are going to be lots of things I’ve got wrong as a mother and with the sincere wish that I was better at the ‘sucking it in and counting to ten’ phenomenon, I said something to my eldest daughter this weekend which perhaps runs contrary to every other motivational poster that’s out there and rather flies in the face of most of the advice the world is giving her on what her future can be.

I tried to serve it with an over-generous handful of ‘never give up’, ‘dream big’, ‘there are no limits to what you can achieve’ seasoning, but what I said was in effect,

“Don’t rely on your dreams and ambitions for your future happiness. It’s very unlikely that they’re going to come true.”

Which isn’t exactly going to feature next to a kitten on a Facebook poster any time soon, I realise, but perhaps it’s the kindest thing I can say to her just now, convinced as she is that she is going to be the next J.K.Rowling at the age of 8.

Amelie winning her first writing award.
As her mother, I will do all I can to nurture her talent, develop her skills, provide all opportunities possible and sacrifice whatever I can to help her achieve her goals. But success and happiness are not the same thing and I worry that we damage our whole society in our insistence on telling our children to ‘dream big’ without the perspective of expectation vs reality.

As a quite often 'novel a day' sort of girl, she is better read at 8 years old than even a book lover such as myself was on starting my Standard Grades. Despite this, I asked her to name all the children’s authors she could think of and compare this to the number of people in her class, her school, all the schools in our town, Scotland, the UK etc. As the gears began to turn in her head, I could see a little puff of hope being ground out of her soul and I tried to catch it and mother it back into her as quickly as I could.

The truth is, (with mother’s goggles on of course) she is a brilliant writer and if she has good luck and opportunity somewhere along the way, she could very well be as successful as any writer ever has been. But as I took out her ancient Egypt book to look at the pyramids, I wanted her to understand something straight away that also seems contrary to the modern lexicon when it comes to our kids. Hard work, talent and determination have almost no relationship to how ‘successful’ you will be in life. I could see in her eyes she was already questioning “why are you saying the opposite of everything everyone’s ever said to me?”

I asked her to look at the pyramid and instead of Pharaoh and Egypt, put the Queen at the top and imagine the United Kingdom in its current form, all the way down to the ‘normal’ folk at the bottom. I told her that even as short a period as 200 years ago (with an early medievalist for a mother she’s used to the idea this being "modern") there were perhaps around 10 million people who lived in the UK. It is obvious, even at eight years old, that then, just as now, there was one queen, one ‘prime minister’, one government, one head of each institution and very little chance for the masses at the bottom to make their way to the top of the pyramid.
Definition of happy.

Without wishing to explore the depressing crash in social mobility even within our own lifetimes, the fact that there are now six times the number of people living in the same space but still the same number of positions available at the top can pretty much be extended to every dream of ultimate ambition. There is still only one gold medal at the Olympic Games for 100m, one No. Chart Spot, one World Cup Trophy, one Best Actress Oscar, one Turner Prize and so on. Yet the ability of the earth to produce amazing human beings with talents and gifts, strength and determination, has not slowed. The base of the pyramid is wider, more intelligent, diverse and remarkable than ever, but it stretches forever, and in a global society, the angles are not drawn in favour of those who begin at the bottom.

I explained to her that that doesn’t mean than you can’t go from bottom to top, but it certainly makes it impossible that everyone can. The ‘American Dream’ exported to us in countless Hollywood movies down the years may work for the rare lucky individual but it isn’t achievable as a society and perhaps we need to be more up front about that with our kids than generally seems to be the norm.

What I really wanted her to understand though, was not how unequal the world is, how we need a social revolution, how everything from realistic female body image to ‘opium for the masses’ TV talent shows, are a pile of crap – what I really want her to understand is that ‘success’ in terms of fame, position, money, material wealth or social regard, are not what keeps us smiling inside on muddy Monday mornings in May.

One daisy is all it takes.
Not so much, “don’t forget to smell the flowers” but, if you can find the beauty in a single daisy, you will soon discover that there is a whole meadow of them to lie in. It is in the expectation of what we "should" achieve that I see the danger – that if our hopes are set on only the petals of the rarest orchid just because we know it exists and we can see it in our dreams, we may miss every rose, every bluebell, every snowdrop and all the sweet scents that life can throw at us if only we would not depend on earth shattering excellence to fulfil all our desires.

Our home being what it is, I didn’t really explain this through the medium of flowers to her. I explained in all seriousness that she had to learn to take joy in her little sister's ‘pump’ jokes – that therein, lies the key to true happiness. Because when a new-born baby laughs for the first time, its happiness is every bit as real and worthwhile as that of the grandparent who holds them in their arms. When you learn to skip for the first time, do a cartwheel or ride a bike, it’s no less a feeling of achievement than getting promotion, being elected to parliament or winning X-Factor. What makes you dance inside, doesn’t need to be complicated. If you can accept the landscape of your reality, your happiness is more likely to bloom than if you rely solely on your dreams for brief moments of ecstasy. 

A Message from the Bairn.
Perhaps as a parent, I worry about everything a little too much, but increasingly I see my responsibility to my daughters as bringing them up with the knowledge, experience and outlook to be happy in life, more than just giving them the skills to be ‘successful’ in whichever path they might chose.

The irony is, that it is only through what my children have taught me about love, life and laughter, that I now see happiness and success in these terms at all and for that I couldn’t be more grateful. I have an encyclopedic volume’s worth of bottom humour to draw on whenever I feel down and in my darkest moments, it isn’t career successes or audiences clapping that I try to conjure, it’s cuddles, laughter and being told (however incorrectly) that I’m the best mum in the world.

If we could bottle this, there would be no war.
I want my kids to know that it’s ok to ‘live low’ even if you ‘dream high’. That aiming for happiness rather than ‘success’ is not an acceptance of failure. It’s just that being yourself is ok, no matter if you stay on the same level of the pyramid your whole life. 

Personally, I haven’t decided to accept ‘my lot’ in life and I’m not asking my girls too either. I’m not content to shrug my shoulders and say ‘well, the world sucks, what can you do’. I am trying my best to change it for the better, in however I can. But whether that’s campaigning against poverty, nuclear missiles, war, waste or saving the planet, my place in the success or otherwise of these efforts can’t be the thing which drives my happiness, any more than whether Bloomsbury pick up the phone to either me or my daughter. Happiness has to be much simpler than that.

It’s about time to go back on the school run and pick up my monsters and mercifully the morning deluge has stopped. Perhaps the Scottish summer has a little more to tell us about the quest for happiness though. 

Realise that actually it normally does rain. It normally is cold and the wind blowing isn’t exactly new. Rejoice when the sun comes out. Smile when the rainbows stretch the horizon. It’s when you don’t expect them, that the sunshine rays will warm you well enough to see you through. 

And don't worry if you think you can't dance when the rain comes on. Stick on your wellies and find a puddle. Small people don't need motivational posters to be happy, follow their lead and it's hard to go wrong.
Don't walk past moments of happiness. Splash in the puddles along the way to wherever you think you're going!