Fairness and friends: the foundations for good mental health at any age
Small children mainly live life in the present tense, but their prescription for wellbeing, though not original, is universal
The Guardian, Tuesday 7 January 2014
Marooned in a cottage in the Lake District, lashed by rain and howling gales, with an intermittent broadband signal, two six-year-olds, one five-year-old and one four-year-old (two dogs, two children – all of them rather excitable), I was forced to look to my immediate environs for material for this column.
Leaving aside my own mental health, increasingly fragile as the deadline approaches and I am interrupted (yet again): “Auntie Clare? Auntie Clare? Auntie Clare?”… “Yes” … “What’s on day nine in the 12 days of Christmas?”… “I’ll look it up … Sorry, the internet’s down.” … “Auntie Clare?” … “Yes” … “Why won’t Meg [one of the dogs] lick my hand?” … “Try smearing it with butter” … “Auntie Clare? Mummy says we’ve finished the butter.”
I decided to make a virtue of necessity and recruit my distractions to assist me in a small-scale, non-representative research project on children’s mental wellbeing. Subtract the dogs, because they’re, well, dogs, and that leaves Hari, whose birth I wrote about in one of my earliest columns, now six, and his sister, Annie, four. What made them happy, I wanted to know. What made them sad? Did they ever feel lonely? What sort of things did they worry about and if they were feeling upset then what made them feel better?
One thing that was immediately apparent was just how much in the present tense small children tend to live. When asked about the happiest day of his life, Hari told me that this had been just yesterday, when we went to a local swimming pool with a “totally, totally brilliant” wave machine. For Annie, my dog Meg licking her hand made her the happiest she’d ever felt ever. What made her unhappy, on the other hand, was when Hari stole her “stretchy man”, so she hid it from him when he was asleep. I assumed this was an ongoing issue but it later emerged that Annie had owned said stretchy man for less than 24 hours.
When encouraged to think more generally though, both children (I talked to them separately) immediately pinpointed unfairness as the thing that upset them the most.
Hari told me about an incident at school when another boy had pushed him and he’d got told off because a teacher had misread the situation. He’d felt very cross and sad, he said and it was clear that he still did. I could empathise; I can still remember, can still, if I’m honest, feel quite upset, about something similar that happened to me 40 years ago. This unhappiness at injustice was not confined to their own experience either. Annie clearly worried about another girl at school who, she told me, was lonely “because everyone thinks she’s naughty but she’s not”.
What made them happy was having friends – and not just to play with but also to talk to. A friend, Hari told me, was someone who tried to cheer you up when you felt sad. Annie told me about a girl at school who she looks after when she misses her mum.
Fairness and friends then, that seems to be Hari and Annie’s prescription for mental wellbeing. It’s not the most groundbreaking piece of research, but I did find it both instructive and sobering. Fairness and friends provide the strongest foundations for good mental health at any age. And yet we live in a society in which social inequality (unfairness) is becoming ever more pronounced, where thousands live in loneliness and isolation.
And in the wider world too, the limits of far too many lives are dictated by gender, religion, race or just where one happens to be born. Children have little control over the world they live in. It’s up to us to create something better for them.