The science of good parenting

A new Web site harnesses positive psychology for kids' happiness.

Published November 15, 2007 1:27PM (EST)

Parents have long been battered by the winds of opposing opinion when it comes to raising their children. As vividly depicted in "Raising America," Ann Hulbert's historical ride through the funhouse of parenting advice manuals, our culture has swung wildly between authoritarian models like "one-two-three magic" and the self-sacrificing cult of attachment parenting. (It's not sleep deprivation, it's nighttime parenting!)

As a parent who has trotted out all manner of contradictory methods to rein in my fierce little progeny, I've come to the conclusion that even when the methods are effective, most of these all-encompassing philosophies of child rearing eventually founder on their own dogmatic view of human nature. Rooted in ideological ideas about what makes a human being behave, the experts seem blind to areas where their methods fall short.

So when word crossed my screen about a new Web site that attempts to boil down empirical psychological research about what makes us happier, healthier and more altruistic and spoon-feed it to parents, the advice-hungry parent in me started salivating. The brainchild of Christine Carter, "Tools for Raising Happy Kids" is a new project of UC-Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, an interdisciplinary research center devoted to "scientific understanding of happy and compassionate individuals, strong social bonds, and altruistic behavior." In other words, GGSC is UC-Berkeley's contribution to the burgeoning field of positive psychology.

The Web site offers columns and tips for parents, with links to research, along with "blogversations" between Carter, GGSC's executive director, and author/mom Kelly Corrigan. Although the Web site launched only last month, it already offers a number of parenting ideas based on recent research that fly in the face of our received notions about children (and adults for that matter). The idea of encouraging failure in your children (and their learning how to deal with it) directly contradicts a lot of modern parenting (and educational notions) vis-à-vis building a child's self-esteem. In one blog, Carter discusses research that finds that gratitude not only makes people happier but is a skill that can be learned. Carter recommends that parents attempt to teach their children this skill through a simple bedtime ritual. Yet another installment explores the finding that children tend to respond negatively to praise that focuses on their achievement and positively to praise that highlights their effort.

Are these new ideas? Hardly. At the heart of so many of these suggestions lurks very familiar traditional rituals. What is saying grace, if not a tool for practicing gratitude? And doesn't the phrase "it's not whether you win, it's how you play the game" encapsulate the conventional wisdom that effort trumps attainment? But for secular parents raising their children in nuclear families these scientific findings may carry more weight than religious rituals and old-fashioned maxims.

Some researchers in the field of happiness studies (like Robert Cummins, whom I recently interviewed) believe that there's an inherent problem with the positive-psychology researchers in that they assume people can learn how to be happier, when much research shows that people tend to return to their contentment set point no matter what happens to them. Decades from now it will be interesting to look back on this new approach to parenting advice and see if it opens a less ideological chapter or forms a new dogma of its own. In the meantime, I'll be drinking the positive-parenting Kool-Aid, but seasoned with a grain of salt.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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