Published on 24 Mar 2024

Giving kids a head start for a happy and healthy life

Some parents think that giving the kids a head start in life is to give them an edge in education by loading them with enrichment activities.

To that end, they spend much of the family's disposable income on enrichment programmes in sports, music and schoolwork.

Unfortunately, there is no data to show that this leads to better life outcomes for the kids.

What if there were something that parents could give children that is proven to help them live healthy and happy lives?

In the bestseller by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz, The Good Life (2023), the Harvard researchers share that teaching kids the value of good relationships is important. Such relationships are the strongest predictor of whether people will have happy and healthy lives as they age.

Waldinger and Schulz jointly lead the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The study, which has been running since 1938, is one of the longest-running studies of adult life, starting before World War II.

It is funded by the United States National Institutes of Health and focuses on participants' health, habits and behaviours through time.

Originally, 724 participants were selected. Subjects ranged from disadvantaged families in Boston to Harvard undergraduates. Interestingly, US president John F. Kennedy, who was assassinated while in office, was one participant.

The study recruited only boys at first because Harvard was an all-male school at the time. As the study progressed, it incorporated the spouses of the original men, and eventually more than 1,300 descendants of the initial group.

Over the more than 80 years, the study has found that the warmth of relationships has the greatest positive impact on life satisfaction. Strong relationships trumped good diets and exercise as a predictor of longevity and life satisfaction.

Waldinger and Schulz point out that a review of 148 other long-range studies, involving 300,000 participants, confirmed the findings of their study.

They write that "people are terrible at knowing what is good for them", spending too much time comparing their wealth and status with what others have.

Such comparisons happen because achievements can be listed on a curriculum vitae. Money can be counted and flaunted. The quantity of social media followers is highly visible. People chase the trappings of money and status because doing so allows them to feel like they are getting ahead.

On the other hand, relationships are ephemeral and difficult to quantify, leading people to more easily neglect them.

The book relates the story of John Marsden, a study participant who became a highly successful lawyer. He was one of the most professionally successful members of the study, but was also one of the least happy with numerous broken relationships in his life.

Conversely, Leo DeMarco, another subject, lived an ordinary life as a teacher, scrimping and saving in his retirement years. But he is considered as one of the study's happiest participants.

So how do parents teach their children about relationships? Much of what people expect from close relationships comes from what is learnt at home. The authors write: "Whatever the make-up of our family, it is more than a group of relationships; it is, in a very real way, part of who we are."

In a chapter on families, Waldinger and Schulz have some advice on building strong relationships.1. Acceptance

The book acknowledges that while families are foundational in terms of how children learn about relationships, they can also be a source of great pain. It recommends that even if a parent's "childhood experience was incredibly rough, or even traumatic", it is important to accept what has happened.

It adds that "a powerful, positive experience will have a corrective effect on an earlier, negative experience".

It is never too late to work on rebuilding familial relationships and to create powerful positive experiences in the family.

Instead of passing judgment on family members, people should learn to accept them.

I learnt this lesson while my kids were still in primary school. I would push them hard in their schoolwork and assign additional assessment papers. If anything was not done to my satisfaction, I would scream at them and punish them.

My wife counselled that I needed to change course when she sensed that my boys would tense up around me and were starting to avoid me.

After we spoke, I realised the error of my ways. It took some time, but I was gradually able to stop shouting at my sons and came to accept their academic performance. I chose to preserve the relationship with my sons over pushing them to chase after grades.

It took work, but the relationship with them recovered, and they are still physically affectionate with me even though they are now much older.

It is important to establish family routines. Regular get-togethers, family dinners and holiday outings help to establish a rhythm for how a family gathers and spends time together.

The book points to how close families drift apart because of a lack of routines.

It describes how a study subject, Sterling Ainsley, was raised by his sister as a young boy and was very close to her. He fell out of touch with her over the years and they did not talk for 20 years. When the study coordinators asked about his sister years later, he did not know if she was dead or alive.

Where face-to-face contact is not possible, technology can help to bridge the gap.

In an age of WhatsApp and Zoom, there is no excuse not to have a chat group for family members or a regular family Zoom catch-up.

When one of our sons was overseas for a month-long course, we had a weekly call on Sunday nights.

I looked forward to them to get an update on what my son was up to. I thought the calls were a good warm-up for when the boys are at university, whether overseas or staying at a hostel in Singapore.

The authors of the book write: "Every member of the family has their own store of buried treasure, unique things that only they can provide to the family but that may be hidden in plain sight."

Taking the buried treasure perspective helped me to be more intentional in my family interactions during gatherings with extended family.

During Chinese New Year, I discovered that my cousin runs a sizeable company selling commercial vehicles. She pivoted from car sales to commercial vehicles five years ago, and started from zero in an industry that is heavily dependent on relationships.

Our conversation would have never happened if I had kept to munching on tidbits while scrolling through my phone.

I was floored by her courage to take a mid-career leap into a different industry. She told me that for six months, she went door to door in industrial areas. She gave out 20 boxes of name cards, braving the rain and sun to establish herself with her new customer base.

I have known this cousin since I was a child, but have never had such an interesting chat with her until I went looking for buried treasure. What else have I been missing out on during family gatherings?

Abel Ang is the chief executive of a medical technology company and an adjunct professor at Nanyang Business School.

Source: The Straits Times