Longing for Nostalgia

I've got that old feeling.

Childhood Happiness: More Than Just Child's Play

The lasting value of childhood happiness.

How happy was your childhood? A seemingly simple question can be more complicated to answer than one would think. Most people are able to think of a wide array of events, activities, people and things they encountered during their childhood. Some memories are happy, and some sad, upsetting, or frightening. Is the impression we have of our childhood happiness the sum of all that we have experienced or primarily a function of the good or the bad? 

It isn't clear how accurate childhood memories are. Many of them are incomplete and have been influenced by the retelling, input from others, and viewing photographs and souvenirs. Our understanding of childhood events can be quite different when viewed from the adult perspective. So, impressions of childhood are not necessarily accurate reflections of the quality of that time period. An individual can remember childhood as better or worse than it really was. While the events themselves can have an impact on psychological well-being during adulthood, one's perception of the events can also influence well-being. 

For example, believing that you were cheated of the things, experiences, love or acceptance that every child deserves can negatively impact relationships and feelings of adequacy and belonging.  Recent research suggests that the impression of having had a happy childhood is associated with greater social connectedness, enhanced sense of self, and healthy behaviors. Adverse impressions of childhood are related to greater difficulty in relationships, self-insight, and dealing with distress.

An incredible amount of attention has been devoted to how children should be raised. Parents can seek advice from experts in books, magazine articles, on television and websites. Parents want to know how much of their children's time should be spent in educational endeavors, sports, creative arts, and recreational activities. Which toys, games, smart media, television programs, exercise, music, and role models are safe, acceptable, beneficial, or harmful? 

Recent research is beginning to explore the extent to which different aspects of childhood are associated with an individual's impression of how happy her or his childhood had been. Impressions of childhood happiness are related more closely to social events and activities than to more solitary ones. For example, having a party for a special occasion is important to the memory of having a happy childhood, whereas getting things a child had wanted such as toys and games is not. Family traditions, praise from a family member, and interacting (doing things together, sharing secrets, etc.) with siblings, friends, or trusted adults are all important to establishing a happy childhood. The time a child spends entertaining him or herself by playing video games, watching television, hiking, fishing, drawing or listening to music contributes less to the sense of childhood happiness.

Parents worry about unhappy or adverse experiences that can happen in childhood. Again, the social or solitary nature of problems is important. For example, serious health problems or academic difficulties are not strongly related to the sense of how happy one's childhood had been, whereas witnessing parents argue, being bullied, or being rejected by peers contribute to a sense of having had an unhappy childhood. Children can't be protected from every adversity, but attention to their feelings can make a difference. While separation from a loved one is an unhappy experience, feeling lonely is more important to the adult sense of having been unhappy as a child. Similarly, children are not always satisfied with their physical appearance, but changing what they can by losing weight or trying a new hairstyle can lessen the emotional impact.

Parents can observe their children's activities and their performance in school, sports, music or art.  What is not as obvious is how their children feel about the events and experiences, and how they feel will be more important in shaping their view of childhood happiness. It is more important that a child feel proud of an achievement or pleased with their performance than being selected for a team or receiving an award.

It isn't possible to ensure that a child will experience only success and happy times. But recent research suggests that the role of other people and how children feel can be more important than the events. Getting things a child wants, academic issues, or failing to make a sports team are not strongly related to the adult perspective of childhood happiness. It is feeling loved by parents that makes the most influential contribution to childhood happiness. As adults, we no longer feel that the number of toys, sports trophies, or top grades we received as children were as important as we thought. What is important to us as adults is knowing that we shared joys and sorrows, successes and disappointments with people who loved us. Long after our memories of toys, gifts, test scores have faded, the feelings of trust, comfort, reassurance, and love remain.

Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., is a professor at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.

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