All of us want our kids to be happy…

Over the last 4 years of conversation with parents, I have heard each and every parent say the same thing, “I want my child to be happy”. Now, you must be thinking, “So what’s great in this realization…obviously every parent wants their child to be happy.” Well, the interesting thing is that when I ask the same parents, “What is the meaning of the word “happy”, they define it in a way, where in they believe that they have defined it, while in reality, they might not have!

How did I realize this?

Simple, because I was one such parent till some time back.

Here I would like to present my Point of View on this and then leave it to you to analyze for yourselves if it makes sense.

Like I said, there was a time when I also thought, as a parent, that I clearly know how to bring up happy kids. However, that realization has been thoroughly challenged by few experiences and events that happened over last few years. First was my self-imposed decision to quit my job and become a Science teacher. When I started my journey in 2016, I had only two clear objectives — first, I would teach Sciences and second, I will never teach in a way that kills the joy of learning itself. These decisions obviously led to a lot of struggle, but the important thing is that it made me interact only with those kids, whose parents where comfortable in a “non-school-and-exam-focused” mode of learning. As my sessions progressed something started churning inside me, which didn’t really made sense at that point in time. Over a period of time, one and half years to be more precise, it slowly started coming together. Here I would like to share one such realization, which happened when my mental churnings/debates met few lines in a favorite book of mine written by Nobel laureate and arguably one of the best teachers, Richard Feynman. The book^ is “Surely you must be joking Mr. Feynman”. At one point in the book Feynman shares an anecdote which was a part his experience of teaching in Brazil*.

Feynman, while taking a session in Brazil, picked up one elementary physics book and said the following:

“I have discovered something else,” I continued. “By flipping the pages at random, and putting my finger in and reading the sentences on that page, I can show you what’s the matter –­­ how it’s not science, but memorizing, in every circumstance. Therefore, I am brave enough to flip through the pages now, in front of this audience, to put my finger in, to read, and to show you.”

So I did it. Brrrrrrrup ­­– I stuck my finger in, and I started to read:

“Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed. . .”

I said, “And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words…”

I have highlighted few words in the above extract from Feynman’s book. These highlighted words, struck a chord with me for the first time though I have read this book twice before. As they say, there is a reason for everything and there is a season for everything. All along I have been decent in Sciences. However, when I looked back at all my learnings in the light of what Feynman said, I could clearly see a challenge now. Most of the time when I thought that I was clear about some concept, because I knew its definition well enough, I now realized was nothing but a pseudo satisfaction because I have just got a habit of replacing one word by a number of other words. And that’s exactly why all those definitions, I thought I learnt, were not learnings — they were at best tools to clear some exams. Now my entire work experience made sense.

  • Why good students from good colleges also struggle in the initial few years of their jobs?
  • Why do companies need to spend so much on training programs to get youngsters employable?
  • Why as a country we struggle to develop new products?

etc. etc.

The answer to all the above questions is very simple — we all only know definitions for our education system has helped us master the art of replacing one word by a number of other words. As I thought more and more, I realized that this challenge with me didn’t apply only to my Science education, it applied to a number of things that I thought I knew well in my life. That’s how I came to realize that as parent when I thought I know what does the word “happy” means, I only knew a definition or in other words, I had just replaced one word called “happy” by another set of words. I actually had no “meaningful” definition of happiness. That obviously brought me to my next question — What will be a meaningful definition of happiness?

Well, Feynman gives an answer to this in the same book. Immediately after the above extract are the following lines:

“…You haven’t told anything about nature ­­– what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can’t.

“But if, instead, you were to write, ‘When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called “triboluminescence”.’ Then someone will go home and try it. Then there’s an experience of nature.” I used that example to show them, but it didn’t make any difference where I would have put my finger in the book; it was like that everywhere.

For a minute, if we ignore the science in here, and just pay attention to the words I have highlighted above — it implies that a definition is precise if you can actually implement it or if it’s a usable one. In simple words, if we have learnt something well then, the only test of that is if we can use it. Otherwise it’s just theoretical knowledge. That’s exactly what I saw in my definition of happiness earlier and in the definition of happiness that parents used to give me. All those definitions sounded very good to talk about, but they lacked any preciseness and applicability. In fact, over time I realized a simple rule — look out for the words spoken, which are adjectives or abstract nouns. Their propensity is good indication of usefulness or uselessness of the definition.

Thus, started my journey of defining happiness. So, I started talking to people and reading books. As I did this, I realized that lots and lots of philosophers and pundits have given their mind to this word and attempted to define it. One of the most common definition that I came across was, ‘Happiness is a state of mind”. Unfortunately, I could not initially identify with this definition for two reasons:

  • Firstly, applying Feynman technique, for me this definition was sounding like replacing one word by another set of words. There is nothing I can do w.r.t this. So, my initial conclusion was that maybe I am a lowly mortal, who can’t follow this definition.
  • Secondly, I clearly realized that my state of mind is not completely in my control, but also in control of my environment. So, when I don’t get what I want, I find, it is very difficult for me to be happy. At some point I may yield and accept it as my fate, but am certainly not happy. Now, here I am not talking about some outrageous desires. I am talking about by normal desires that make up a large part of my life. When a colleague of mine plays politics with me, due to which I believe I didn’t get my due in the appraisal, I for sure can’t have my state of mind in my control. I am certain to feel angry. When such rightful desires are not fulfilled, I do not know how to be happy. At least, I struggle to control my state of mind.

As I thought more about this, I realized something that made sense to me. In the case of the earlier example, if I were to find a solution to my situation/problem (i.e. of not being given due appraisal), my happiness will be back. In simple words, the path to my happiness lies in finding a solution to this problem of being unfairly treated. Looking from this perspective we can visualize our life as a process of facing situations or problems that we have to solve and our happiness at any point in time is dependent on our ability to solve the problem (or handle the situation), existing at that point in time, in a way that makes us happy. As long as we can handle the situations, life throws at us effectively, we have every reason to be happy. The moment I reached this conclusion, I could make sense of the philosopher’s definition of happiness also. A person like me thinks that a good appraisal is the only solution, while for someone else, designating that situation as karma/fate/etc. and accepting it could form a solution to the problem. The simple point is that as long as we are able to find a solution to our problems and execute them, we remain happy. So, it’s not about the solution per se. It’s all about our ability to find a suitable solution to the problem we are facing and then executing it.

To sum up, today my definition of happiness is,

“Happiness is a state of mind reached when we are able to create a solution to the problem or handle the situation that life throws at us and then implement that solution to our satisfaction.”

If that is what it is, then the best way to raise happy children is to teach them to master this art or skill of problem solving. Learning Maths, Science, Judo, Music, etc. etc. is not going to make them happy until and unless these skills help them to solve the problems they face. It could a simple day to day relationship issues or a more profound problem leading them to a scientific enquiry and discovery. In simple words, these skills like Sciences, Music, Maths etc. are just tools, that have to be appropriately applied. By themselves they yield nothing. It’s like, if a car is not working then to correct it one needs various tools. But the tools by themselves can’t correct the car. Understanding the problem which has made the car break down, will help one repair the car. The tools just help us to execute the correction process. Tools are like the supporting cast in a movie, while problem solving is the lead actor. This is where the problem lies, with our education system and parenting. We keep stuffing the minds of our kids with all kinds of tools but we don’t teach them how to solve problems. The end point, is that our kids are not happy learning despite we parents doing our best. This realization struck me more forcefully when my daughter once joked, after finishing her Maths homework — “Papa, Maths is the only place where people buys hundred shoes for no reason.”

So, what do we do now?

At this point, let me share the most interesting thing that I learnt in the last few years — Children are born with just the right kind of tools required to solve problems, and the only thing parents are supposed to do is to preserve and enhance them. Watch your children carefully without interrupting and you will see what I mean. More on this sometime later.

Before I close let me add this for clarity — if this blog makes you think that I have found the right answer and thus achieved nirvana in dealing with my kids, I can only tell you that nothing can be farther from the truth. Last few years of dealing with kids has been nothing but a journey of discovering my own ignorance w.r.t anything and everything in life.

^ I would strongly recommend every parent and everyone who has some interest in education to read this chapter. Though it’s about Feynman experience of teaching in Brazil, every word of it applies to India also.

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