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The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness

The Childhood Roots of Adult HappinessI’ve borrowed the title of Dr. Ned Hallowell’s book (2002, Ballentine Books) as the title of this article. This is a must-read for all parents.

Of course I love the book partly because his central points are the same ones I’ve been writing about for years, only he presents them with more research support, greater detail, and an innovative model, his 5-step cycle. He even uses one of my favorite analogies, parents as gardeners (also as farmers), in a manner similar to my favorite phrase, “be a gardener, not a sculptor.” He also shares my disdain for the epidemic over focus on grades and “best” colleges as well as the harm of too much structured sports and not enough value given to free play.

But my real reason for saying thanks to Dr. H. (notice the similarity!) is that his book pushes readers to think about their own lives and try to understand what may have contributed to their own happiness and success. It turns out Dr. Hallowell and I share more than similar ideas about what really matters to children.

His personal history is a difficult one. His childhood is marked by a father with mental illness who was hospitalized when he was young, a divorce when he was 6, a mother who drank, and an abusive stepfather who also drank. Add in two learning disabilities and he certainly is qualified to ask how he managed to become a happy, successful adult despite such a seemingly problematic childhood. His openness in sharing the challenges in his life, including his insecurities as a parent, is part of what makes this book special.

As I said, we have much in common. Though my history is not as troubled as his, I have always thought of my childhood as an unhappy time. My mother developed a severe mental illness and was hospitalized for part of my high school years. My father struggled to make a living and I felt ashamed of our run-down house and old used cars. We lived in the middle of nowhere far out on Long Island and I spent a lot of time by myself. I went to a school that was seven miles away and not until my junior year of high school did redistricting bring me within two miles of my school. All those years of long bus rides to school left me with virtually no afterschool social life and, during that time, I was always the only Jewish kid in my class, a situation that often resulted in being bullied by the tough boys who were not good students.

I was the classic late bloomer, and I do mean late. Not until my junior year in college did I begin to resemble the more outgoing, outspoken leader-type of person I was to become as an adult. So how did that transformation happen? What gave me the strength and skills to cope with adverse conditions?

Dr. Hallowell centers on the term “connection” as his core thesis for what matters most in life. Here, again, we are in strong agreement. So I searched back into my life to think about what connections made a difference. It starts with my mother. Despite whatever demons she struggled with (and showed remarkable strength by making a significant recovery), I was unquestionably the proverbial apple of her eye. And I knew it. She believed in me and showed an interest in me that was definitely special. Whatever I was doing was important to her. She even took the time to “enjoy” my first Elvis records! She was not a warm, nurturing mother, but we clearly had a very strong bond that continued until the end of her life about ten years ago.

Connection is so important. It gives one a sense of self-value and a core of good feelings that provides a powerful resource when life presents extra-special challenges. Research shows it to be the primary antidote against adolescent risks of drugs and dropping out. It should be at the center of parents’ values and priorities. In the long run it is clearly much more important to a happy and successful life than children’s achievements (or lack of).

As important as it is to understand where our strengths come from, it is also important to understand how our personal history influences the way we parent. My father and I did not have a strong connection; in fact, very little connection. Though I was told stories about how he took me for long walks when I was very young, I do not recall our spending time playing together. When family gathered, the men played cards. Yet I have no recollection of him playing cards with me. He was not athletic. There were no games of catch in the yard and no shooting hoops with the makeshift, crooked, backboard that I had attached to a big oak tree. He never came to my games when I played on teams. I know he was working long hours, but to a young kid, the absence is deeply felt.

Ironically, my father turned out to play a significant role in my life, because I was determined that when I had children I would spend a lot of time playing with them, and I did. Through that experience I got to play all the card games and board games that I never played as a child. So I had a “second childhood.” I have never lost touch with that little boy inside who loved to play. I am still sad that my father died when I was a senior in college. I know that as I matured I would have come to understand him better and we probably would have grown closer. I know he loved me.

Readers should reflect on this question of how our past influences the way we parent. So many of the parents I talk to are burdened by negative messages that keep playing in their heads. “Whatever I do is never good enough.” “I want to avoid conflict or anger, no matter what.” “I must work all the time.” “My children must show respect for me at all times.” Thoughts like these can result in a parent not behaving in a manner that is consistent with her true values and beliefs but, instead, trying to be, or avoiding being, a self-image from her own childhood. Effective parents need to be comfortable with who they are. Children only require “good enough” parenting. You don’t have to be a “superparent” for your children to turn out okay. One of my favorite simplifications of parenting is the phrase, “Play with your children a lot and say no occasionally.” Connection, joy, and a reasonable smattering of discipline will get the job done…really.

I am especially concerned that parents have come to see their immediate world as dangerous. While this can be a very real issue in certain urban neighborhoods, for most families the image of pedophiles lurking near every playground and the fear of kidnappers and drug dealers is incredibly disproportionate to the actual level of risk. This robs children of the freedom to roam, to explore their world, to just go out and play!

I had no playmates most of my childhood years. I had to learn to be creative and use my access to woods, streams, even a large bay to entertain myself. I acted out many a fantasy roaming through those “dangerous” areas as well as learning a lot about communing with nature and the animals that inhabited my “playground.” What I never really thought about until reading this book was that my mother never expressed anxiety about my safety but instead encouraged my explorations, even when I returned home with a turtle or a frog! This is such an important contribution to the emergence of self-confidence and to developing a curiosity about the world we live in.

Unfortunately our educational system fails to recognize the importance of play in how children learn and the overscheduled lives of children and parents make free play time almost a relic of the past. A related issue is that many parents have lost their ability to be playful. Everyone is feeling so stressed out and short of time that it’s all about eliminating items on “to-do” lists. Play is such an important part of the parent-child relationship, and at all ages, not just with very young children. Enjoying your children is a special way of saying “I love you simply for being here.” That means a lot for the development of a sense of worthiness.

In reflecting further on my “roots of happiness,” I thought about a few other important connections in my life that helped me overcome adversity and develop a sense of being able to solve problems — what Martin Seligman (a renowned psychologist and author of many books) refers to as “learned optimism,” a strong antidote to depression. I was a good student and since I went to a very small school, I developed strong connections to some teachers along the way. I was probably more comfortable with adults than with my peers, a comment I often hear from parents who are concerned about their child’s lack of friends. I especially remember Mrs. Taft, my fourth grade teacher, Mr. Bell, a junior high science teacher and baseball coach, and Mr. Griffi, who taught a writing course in my junior year of college and took me under his wing because he felt I had writing talent.

Their interest in me and my work clearly fed into the five-step cycle that Dr. Hallowell describes: Connection, Play, Practice, Mastery, and Recognition. Each feeds off the other and contributes to growing into a happy and successful adult. But a key is that parents need to encourage children mastering what is of interest to them, not what others may deem important.

Dr. Hallowell notes, “I am disciplined in what I love and undisciplined in what I don’t love.” Or, as I like to put it, children who get to do what they love become adults who love what they do. This challenges parents to focus on their children’s interests and strengths, instead of their deficits. This challenges parents to allow their children to experience failure and to struggle to overcome it, for in overcoming failure, children gain strength and confidence. As I like to say, if you don’t let your children fall down, they never get a chance to learn how to pick themselves up.

The issues of practice and mastery brought to mind my experience with Miss Hand, the stereotypical spinster English teacher. Our high school chose one student to deliver a graduation speech besides the valedictorian. I was selected. I remember how hard she drove me, rewrite after rewrite, practicing presentation over and over. I often wanted to quit. I felt she was being unreasonable in her expectations. But I wanted to do this because my mother would be there on a pass from the hospital, soon to be discharged. I wanted to her to be proud and happy. So I hung in, learned the value of hard work in a way that no other experience ever taught me, and delivered a great speech. Still have a copy of it. And, yes, it was a very special moment for my mother.

I never went to an outstanding college, didn’t have friends until later in life, and had some tough family issues with which to deal. But the roots I needed were there. Looking back, I have learned to appreciate the people and places and experiences that contributed to my resilience and ending up as a very happy and successful adult.

Parenting is not a one-way street, however. We need to recognize how much we gain from being parents. I altered my career in order to spend more time with my sons, unquestionably giving up some professional accomplishments in doing so. But I’ve learned so much from the strong connection I forged with my sons over the years. They taught me a lot about love and sacrifice. They brought me endless hours of joy, along with the usual share of aggravation, frustration, and worry (which, by the way, never ends).

As they grew into young adults, they have actually had an increasing influence in my everyday life, despite being away from home. From the razor I shave with to many of the CDs I listen to, movies I see, places we travel, foods I try, investment advice and opportunities, becoming more computer literate, intensely following a high school basketball team — the several years I spent driving a stick shift car and rediscovering my joy of driving — all this and more. My sons have grown up and become two of my best friends. Only my wife has a greater influence on my life and only she knows more about me than they do.

Their lives are not perfect by any means. They have their successes and challenges such as a chronic illness and a divorce. Both have shown significant resilience in dealing with life’s challenges and I hope I have contributed to that by my connection to them and how much I have, and still, enjoy them. But neither one has yet to fulfill my fantasies of what I pictured for them. Perhaps this is the most important thing they have taught me — and which I am still learning — that my idealized hopes for each were, and are, more about my needs than theirs.

This is something I believe is true for all parents and when we are able to recognize this in our parental behavior, it makes the whole process so much easier. We ease up on trying to shape and control their lives, we learn to be less judgmental about what is right or wrong in their lives, we learn to try and understand what is really important to them. In other words, we learn to listen to our children, a skill that we should be refining from day one, and, perhaps, just the most important parenting skill of all.

The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness

Kalman Heller, PhD

Dr. Kalman Heller is a retired psychologist who ran a successful private practice. He previously wrote a monthly column for a local newspaper, and later took his "ParenTalk" column online. This article is reprinted from his online column with his permission.

APA Reference
Heller, K. (2018). The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. Psych Central. Retrieved on February 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.