Before I tucked my five-year-old daughter, Gillian, into bed last night, she declared that the day was “the best day ever.” As she snuggled up against me while I read to her from a chapter book, I noticed that her fingernails were dirty from digging in sand at the playground and her hair smelled like chlorine from the swimming pool.
As days for five-year-olds go, I guess it was a good one. But I couldn’t help but wonder how she didn’t seem to recall that I’d scolded her for picking a fight with her older brother or that, in the rush to get her out the door for a family road trip, I had made her leave some of her favourite stuffed animals at home. Both instances made her cry.
Despite her playful cannonballs in the pool and drawings in the sand at the park, her tears and my harsh words were what stuck out most in my mind. How could she have possibly had a happy day with a grouchy mom at the helm? In my mind, today was not the best day ever.
Happiness is something I think about a lot. More specifically, I think about my children’s happiness. I guess that doesn’t make me unique, and it’s likely something all parents worry about at one time or another. Turns out, researchers at Plymouth University in England recently took a closer look at happiness levels in children—more specifically, parents’ interpretations of their children’s moods.
Lead researcher Dr. Belen Lopez-Perez questioned 357 young kids and teens about their levels of happiness. Parents were also asked about their own happiness and to report on how they perceived their children’s happiness. Previous research hadn’t asked kids to self-report, relying only on parental responses when reaching their conclusions.
What Dr. Lopez-Perez discovered is that parents of 10- and 11-year-olds consistently overestimate how happy their kids are. “Studying informants’ discrepancies and the relationship between parents’ and children’s self-reports on happiness is vital to determining whether parental reports are valid,” says Dr. Lopez-Perez. Accurate reports from parents on their children’s overall mental health are key to improving parent-child relationships, according to researchers.
They also found that parents are more likely to score their children’s happiness in line with their own feelings. Calling it “egocentric bias,” they found that parents rely on their own feelings to gauge the happiness of their entire family. “Being unable to read children’s happiness appropriately may increase misunderstanding between parents and children, which has been shown to have negative consequences for parent-child relationships,” says Dr. Lopez-Perez. She adds that these discrepancies may mean that parents might not be able to support their children’s emotional needs properly.
So, what does that mean for parents? In my case, I always worry that I’m not doing enough to ensure that my kids, Isaac and Gillian, are happy (even when they reassure me otherwise). Maybe what I need to do is worry less about their happiness (because they seem to be doing just fine) and worry more about my own. Or maybe, more accurately, stop worrying at all.
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