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Increase the well-being of children around you

Four things you can do to foster well-being

I think that there is a confluence of effects going on in terms of increasingly poor outcomes for kids (Heckman, 2008).

Needs denied. We have children who don't get what their bodies and brains need in early life (breastfeeding, frequent positive touch, prompt response to fusses and cries, social support-our research about this has been in news around the world in the last few weeks; see the press release here) which leads to a suboptimal brain and body, less resilience and confidence, and a greater likelihood to have an anxious personality and a troubled life.

Forced isolation. Babies now spend a great deal of time isolated in their own cribs, carriers, strollers, etc. so they are not getting the social experience and pleasure that their brains need and that our ancestors relied on for happiness and success. Young children spend more of their time with non-kin in situations that are competitive instead of supportive. Because children have lost the context of growing up in a cooperative, loving extended family, they have to learn to get along a lot on their own. They don't receive the frequent close guidance of caring adults.

Nature deficit. Children now also don't get much if any experience playing out in nature on their own (which builds confidence and autonomy). Perhaps they don't want to go out alone without structured activities because they don't feel all that secure from the lack of support in early life. So they get used to sitting in front of a monitor (TV, computer) or in a stroller/car. Some suggest that our children have a "nature-deficit disorder."

Attraction to deadening activities. In the context just described, television and videogames seem like a perfectly normal and fun way to spend your childhood. It is attractive too because they have received relatively little pleasure from social life, the primary source of joy and wellbeing for our ancestors.

Under or mis-nourished moral imagination. An additional concern about violent media and videogames I have, among others, is a narrowed imagination. Moral development is about shaping imagination and perceptions as well as behavior. Morality is what you do but also how you perceive and how you imagine. Violent videogames tune your moral imagination towards certain kinds of information (threat cues), problems (criminality), and goals (dominance). Violent media minimize the importance of human life and respect for all life.

Right brain misdevelopment. Focusing on media and videogame play is devastating to development because the right brain, which develops primarily before puberty, acts as a storehouse of knowledge that will be accessed for the rest of life. If you have not had deep social and physical experience in those years, you have a deficit of intuitions about life. The time taken up by videogames is time taken away from being with others learning and practicing prosocial behavior. You will instead use what you have available and what playing violent videogames promote, the primitive part of the brain for those intuitions, which are self-centered (for status/dominance/safety-first). When early life needs are not met (mentioned above), this also undernourishes the right brain because it has a spurt of development before age two.

Play deficit. I mean free play out in nature with different-aged people. Our peaceful and happy cousins who live like our ancestors spent their days playing. Somehow we have transformed life into work and displeasure most of the time. That is not our heritage.

So this season ask yourself what worlds of possibilities are fostered by children's activities (movies, games)? Do they expand the child's world of respect and care for others or do the activities emphasize self-centered preoccupation? Do the activities expand the child's confidence in making his or her way in the world or do the activities make the child more likely to be narrow-minded, socially isolated or inflexible?

How do we turn around and increase the well being of the children in our families? How can adults help children develop into compassionate people? Here are four things you can do.

Hold and cuddle the kids. Nothing forced of course. Learn to find enjoyment in it yourself. (It may take some time to learn if you have learned to avoid it.) This may be more appropriate with younger children but adolescents and adults benefit from cuddling too.

Play with the kids (and adults!). Wrestling, running, climbing, throwing. Tell stories. Sing. Be silly. Laugh. Sing. Create things together.

Connect to nature with the children. Go for a walk. Visit a natural park. Explore the woods. Play in the yard. Climb a tree. Look at the stars.

Listen. Pay attention to the child's emotions. Be kind to them. Respond with compassion. Heed them.

If you do watch violent movies or play violent videogames, talk about them. Point out their limited worldviews; discuss alternative perspectives and problem-solving strategies.

I'm looking forward to doing all these things with my young relatives. I hope you are willing to nourish the children around you too. Together we can turn around the world one child and one family at a time towards greater happiness and well being.