Saturday, February 29, 2020

In this season of applications, admissions and explorations, whether they be for summer programs, high schools or colleges, it is a good time to step back and ask ourselves the classic question of what we really want for our children and our students.

In his book “The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness,” Dr. Edward Hallowell points out that with respect to this question, “your reply will almost certainly include one particular word: the simple, even silly-seeming word happy……Oh sure, we want them to contribute to the world, care for others and lead responsible lives. But deep down, most of us, more than anything else, want our children to be happy.” And happy children most often lead to happy, contributing adults.

Hallowell points to central ingredients that are most critical for us to help children achieve adult happiness. Two of those elements are optimism and connectedness.

Of all of the elements of our lives, research has shown that optimism is a key element to adult happiness. Optimism, says Hallowell, is not denying the negative aspects of life; it is the belief that there is always a solution and always hope no matter how hard things get. It is the idea that one is not beat, no matter the challenge. 

Because we know about the risks and dangers that exist on the road to life, we adults can fall into the pessimism trap. Yet, in order to raise happy, successful adults we must avoid catastrophizing and globalizing and doomsaying, for such an attitude leads to fear and uncertainty in children.  Writes Hallowell, “Children learn from how you react to problems...they inherit your attitudes and behaviors” (p. 143), and one of those behaviors is how we respond to adversity and how we look at the world.  

While some come by optimism more naturally than others, Martin Seligman, known for his work on optimism, teaches that optimism can be learned. We can work to control our reactions and show that we believe in our ability to persevere and problem solve. This approach models for our children and leads to a life of hard work and positivity. 

The more time I spend in school and with parents, the more I agree with this approach. Parents, teachers and faculty who exude positivity day in and day out get more buy-in from children.  Children seek those people out on their educational and emotional journey toward adulthood.

Certainly Chanukah is a time where we can be inspired by and emphasize our religious legacy of optimism. One of the central miracles of Chanukah, according to many rabbis and scholars, is just the fact that the Maccabees searched for oil. In a world where everything was destroyed, just having the optimism that there would be a pure cruse in the wreck of the Temple is something to celebrate. And to take it further, lighting the menorah with that one cruse was an act of faith and optimism.  

When our children achieve their dreams, we can and must celebrate. We should rejoice in their joy—the joy that comes when hard work and investment pay off. But just as important is to be there when they do not get the results they want. It is then when we are needed to model the lens of positivity to help them search to find light in new, unexpected ways.

The second element that Hallowell suggests is connectedness. It is natural to think that those with the most focus and drive succeed the most. But, while hard work is an important element to success,  Hallowell and his colleague, Michael Diamonti, in a study done at the Exeter Prep School found that drivenness was not most critical. 

Hallowell writes: “We measured ‘drivenness,’ and ironically, the students who were highest on the ‘driven’ scale got poorer grades… We measured connectedness by responses to questions along the lines of… ‘Do you feel closely connected to members of your family?’ and ‘Do you feel that you are part of something larger than yourself.’ The students who answered yes to those kinds of questions were the students who got the highest grades.”

While raw ability is certainly important, it is the expanding of connectedness that leads most to success. Exposure to nurturing environments and connection to family, to school, to community and to important ideas that are seen as bigger than ourselves give children a structure of safety and comfort from which they can work hard, take risks, stretch themselves and succeed. According to Rav Sabato, connection is critical in times of distress. He writes, “There are times when nothing protects you other than your remembrance of your ancestors.”  

On Chanukah, this connection to family, nation and to the ideas of Yahadut is what allowed the Maccabees to stand up in the face of assimilation and rededicate the House of God.  

Bruce Stewart, educator and thinker, said,“We are warmed by fires we did not light.” And so too with us. Connectedness to fires bigger than ourselves, and basking in the warmth of those fires of community, family and legacy that were lit before us, allows us to dig deep and find strength in good days and in bad.  

As we shepherd children through their plans for the future, let’s remember that, whether they will get in to the place of their dreams or not, it is how we teach our children how to inhabit these spaces—as positive, connected citizens who that will lead to productivity, giving, empathy and, in turn, happiness.   


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