Creating Happy Children

Children are full of life. Remove the darkness of negativity and fear and they radiate happiness like a sun bursting with light again when the dark clouds have rolled away.
Children are full of life. Remove the darkness of negativity and fear and they radiate happiness like a sun bursting with light again after the dark clouds have rolled away.

We are all born with inner beauty and a huge capacity for happiness. Yet each time we are either emotionally or physically hurt, a layer is placed around us for protection to shut out people and things that hurt us. Each time we add a layer of protection – most often by adopting various defences – it becomes more difficult to see this inner beauty. Then these layers become the armour which protects us, much like the armour the knights of old clanked around in. But just as armour limited their movements, our protective armour limits our personal growth and happiness.

“All this armour isn’t the real you.”

This is what I told a year seven class one morning at the beginning of our creative drama session while they were lying on the carpeted floor, relaxing, with their eyes closed. I would play some soft music, I told them, and when they felt ready, they could stand up and move very slowly to it, creating a shape with their body and then let it melt slowly into another shape, and so on.

As they changed each shape I asked them to visualize casting off a layer of armour – sort of like peeling layers off an onion – until they discovered something beautiful about themselves. They were to continue making body shapes while they got to know that part of themselves. However for those who could not connect with their inner beauty – and there were quite a few boys who couldn’t – I suggested that they just concentrate on making interesting shapes.

After the music began and the children moved in slow motion to spread out their arms and legs to form various shapes, collectively they took on the appearance of flowers gradually unfolding their petals in the warm rays of the sun. Concentration was high. Bodies bent or swayed slowly. The beauty and grace in their movements would have surprised most parents looking on. I was acutely aware that many of these children were constantly ridiculed or punished by parents – sometimes for simply not being the sort of child their parents wanted them to be. This was my way of undoing some of the damage this caused, for the creative arts speak to a child’s inner core about who they really are and the things they can value about themselves.

During the discussion that followed, most children agreed they had gained a lot from the experience and were keen to do more. So, for the next piece of music I encouraged them to get in touch with some of the feelings they had buried deep inside them. When the music ended they were to lie on the floor and let these feelings go through their minds and decide what they were going to do with them. If they were bad feelings, they could decide if it was time to cast them out. They could express these feelings in a drawing, play, poem, or story without having to show me their work. However if they wanted to share it, they could.

The following day Lorraine (not her real name) approached my desk. “I’d like to show you what I’ve written,” she said, handing me her book. She sat next to me while I read a story about a picnic, which turned out to be the day her parents split up. Her mother had to leave the house and her children behind and was very upset about it. I had to clamp my jaw shut tight so as not to cry when I read about her confused feelings and desire to be with her mother again.

I had met Lorraine’s father at a parent/teacher interview. He had made himself out to be a man struggling to bring up three children after his wife had walked out, which had seemed like a recent event. I had felt admiration for him at the time, and Lorraine seemed happy and well-adjusted. But I looked across at her and saw tears in her eyes about to spill down her cheeks.

“This is a really beautiful piece of writing, Lorraine,” I said. “I like the way you have been able to describe your feelings at the picnic. When did your parents break up?”

Lorraine could no longer hold back her tears and let them roll down her face. “Four years ago,” she said.

I assured her that it was okay to cry and that it was a good way to let go of her hurt. But I was shocked when she told me that she often cried herself to sleep – still. Her words appeared to come from the heaviness of a huge burden she bore when she said, “I cry because I want to be with my Mum. Dad won’t let me hardly see her. Mum gets upset about it and cries too.”

I didn’t know what to say. Her grief buried itself in the pit of my stomach. No one would have ever known the sadness Lorraine carried around with her as a constant companion, and I suggested that it would be good if she could see a counsellor to help her deal with her grief.

During my own childhood I had heard my mother say on more than one occasion, “Children are so resilient.” Even then I knew it wasn’t true because there was silent grief eating away at me, although I didn’t have a name for it then. Sometimes it visited me as sadness after the light went out at night. Other times it haunted me in my dreams. Sometimes during the day it felt like a dark and heavy cloak of dejection I wore. In my teenage years it became heavier and heavier. I now know that I had a chronic form of depression known as dysthymia. It is not as severe as major depression, but nevertheless, it was very debilitating and robbed my life of happiness for years.

Dysthymia is characterized by a persistent gloomy mood that can last for two years or more.

When someone dies or a divorce occurs in the family and no one talks about it – or any other traumatic event that may occur such as abuse or domestic violence – it doesn’t mean that the feelings associated with these events go away over the course of time. On the contrary, when they are suppressed or buried they can, and often do, turn into depression and/or other forms of mental illness over the course of time. At the very least, they limit a child’s capacity to develop resilience and their ability to maintain a happy state of being.

I wonder now how much freer Lorraine would have been if her father had been able to put her happiness ahead of his need to ‘punish’ his ex-wife. Would she have been able to emerge from behind her quiet and co-operative mask and more fully engage with school – with what she was learning as well as socially connecting at a more meaningful level? If she had had the counselling she needed to better cope with her loss, how much of her armour would it have allowed her to remove? I will never know the answer to these questions, for as soon as the family secret was revealed to me, Lorraine’s father transferred her to another school.

Children need social support to help them develop their resilience to deal with the inevitable trials and tribulations and traumas of life. When loss is not mourned at the time it occurs, children are likely to suffer in silence for years – even for life – for grief can become morbid and remain a constant yet invisible (and destructive) companion.

But grief can be integrated into one’s life experiences in a positive way when secrets are shared and acknowledged by respectful listening. Grief and loss, although sad and painful, can be put into perspective as a normal part of life and living. By allowing children to openly mourn their losses, they can let go and move on. And this is what helps to create a happy and resilient child.

Mr. Kanamori, while teaching a Year Four class in Japan, shows in the following documentary,  Children Full of Life: Learning to Care, which was filmed over a one-year period, that by releasing present and past grief, children are set a little freer to achieve his stated goal for the year: To Be Happy.

Other parts of the documentary show how bullying can blight happiness, as well as Mr. Kanamori’s overreaction to a boy who wouldn’t stop talking in class. His human side is shown when he allows one of the boys to challenge the severity of his punishment. He is unafraid to show that teachers can also make mistakes and that a caring teacher will listen to his students, and correct his own misjudgements.

Through his empathetic teaching style, Mr. Kanamori shows his students how they can develop through both positive and negative life experiences. He opens the door into a world where children learn to empower themselves, and in so doing, they learn how to create their own happiness.

Empathy is the greatest thing. There’s an expression I love: “Let people live in your heart.” There’s no limit on numbers. They tell the stories and everyone shares their feelings. When people really listen…they live in your heart forever. ~ Mr. Kanamori

Children Full of Life: Learning to Care won the Grand Prix, The Japan Prize, and the Governor of Tokyo Prize as the best program in “Issues in Education Category.” It was entered by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK).

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