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The complicated case of the happy child

By: | November 17, 2014

Too often, concerns over a child’s skills and abilities trump concerns over the child’s happiness

Leisha Sagan
Mum's the Word navigates this beautiful, often surreal, other world that some like to call parenthood.

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Is you 'appy? You gotta be 'appy!...to pass on healthy epigenetic markers to your descendants through your DNA. Photo by Leisha Sagan.

“Oh what happy baby you have!”

“Is he always this happy?”

“He seems so good-natured; how nice to see him so happy!”

Such lovely comments to hear from people we meet from time to time. From grandparents, from strangers in a cafe or bed & breakfast, from friends that we meet at a potluck, from older children. How often they all comment, “What a happy baby.” Happiness in children, of course, is a desirable state.

And he is happy. I am thankful that he is. I don’t find it strange. It doesn’t seem abnormal to me. I don’t know whether it’s simply our little one’s disposition in general to be a happy child, or whether it’s our methods of parenting. Perhaps it’s all of the above. I love his happiness. It makes our home more lovely, more beautiful, more full of laughter and giggles and smiles and cheer even when a day may feel impossible.

Because he delights at everything. He finds wonder in each small thing. He’s happy to play peek-a-boo in a tunnel with his older sisters. He loves listening to music and having dance parties. He doesn’t mind the cold fall air and chilly walks in the woods; instead he searches out branches and trees to help Daddy with the firewood-collecting. He turns measuring cups into tea cups and talks about his tiny friend’s recent birthday. He laughs at our cats when they snuggle on the bed, or sit on the kitchen table. He is happy when we travel, because he is happy just to be with his mama, or his dada. He is, so simply, a happy little person.

“Concerns and criticisms galore”

How strange then, that the same people who often comment on how happy he is are the same ones who criticize our various methods of parenting. I am currently a stay-at-home parent. My job is taking care of our children, taking care of our home. So naturally, little person is a very attached little person. He spends his days with his mama. We have adventures, we go to playgroups, we attend garden programs and planned activities with other children. He loves music and nature and trains. We do all of these things together. At this stage, I am his whole world.

So it makes sense to me that he’s worried, concerned, or frightened when I leave the room at a playgroup, or step out of his line of sight. His world is threatened, and he is insecure. This is a natural part of childhood development. But, of course, there are always those who express concern that he “spends too much time with his mama,” or perhaps that he “should be more independent.” Likewise, maybe he is getting “too old to breastfeed,” and so I should “develop a plan to wean him from breastfeeding.”

Concerns and criticisms galore, despite him being such a happy child.

The same people are always worried that little one will have a difficult time integrating into society. They say he needs to learn to interact more with people (even though he loves playing with other children and is very social). They say he needs to develop social cues (even though he’s only 22 months old and already expresses empathy for others). They say he needs to be educated through daycare and preschool so that he can prepare for school (despite the fact he loves to read with all his family and is developing language at a wonderful rate).

Their concerns for his future happiness seem to become, as he gets older, less focused on his emotional happiness and more on his skills and development. But why do these things need to be so distinct?

Epigenetics and the importance of a happy childhood

There have been several interesting research projects on childhood emotional health and future happiness in recent years. The most recent one, a study from the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance, purports that emotional health in childhood is the key determinant to adult satisfaction — beyond academic success in childhood, or finance in adulthood. Positive emotional health—i.e. childhood happiness—will lead into all the other factors of adult satisfaction. And while there may be those who scoff at the study and rather focus on educational success, health, and social skills in childhood, the study has an interesting sociological aspect that I find links up to another realm of research: that of genetic memory, or epigenetics.

According to recent research on behavioural epigenetics, it’s been suggested that the traumatic experiences of your ancestors—or of our own past—can leave molecular scars on DNA. The lived experiences of your grandparents or great-grandparents who survived the World Wars, or lived through family abuse, or poverty, or sexual assault, or starvation, can be carried through to our own DNA, according to the theory. And to our children’s DNA.

Just as there may be traumas and deficiencies in our ancestors’ pasts that assert themselves into our lives today, there may be strengths also. The love and nurturing relationships, the resilience of survival, and other lived experiences can all imprint onto the epigenome as well. Similarly, behavioral and mood disorders descended from our ancestors, which may be helped through developing drug treatments, could reset our own epigenome. Love, kindness, empathy, positive experiences, nurturing — these things can all help reset the epigenome and carry through into our descendants.

I have a child who descends from persons who were starved through World War II, who lived through refugee camps, who were born in refugee camps. He is descended from persons who have lived through and died from mental illness. He is also descended from those who have gained much strength and resiliency from such experiences, as well as sadness.

 I want to give him empathy, love, resilience, and security, to carry him into life and beyond. That I am able to give him this gift of love—an amazing, incredible gift—is absolutely necessary.

According to these theories, he carries those experiences with him into his life, into his adulthood, and can pass them onto his own children someday.

This doesn’t mean that his entire life is set in stone because of the experiences of his ancestors, however. The same researchers—Michael Meaney and Moshe Szyf—who have been spearheading trauma research in epigenetics have also been publishing groundbreaking (and mind-blowing) research on how methylation of DNA that occurs primarily in childhood can erase or kickstart new genetic experiences. Their groundbreaking research in 2004 on epigenetics opened up a new realm of postnatal inheritance. Basically, the care and nurturing that you receive as an infant, as a toddler, is more likely to cause new epigenetic markers on your DNA than experiences you have as an adult.

So, your future happiness and satisfaction really could come back to your childhood emotional happiness.

For example, in their research Meaney and Szyf found that rats that were deprived of parental affection, response, and touch as infants then provided the same deficiency of care to their own children: “[T]hat inattentive mothering in rodents causes methylation of the genes for estrogen receptors in the brain. When those babies grow up, the resulting decrease of estrogen receptors makes them less attentive to their babies.”

So all the co-sleeping, all of the breastfeeding, all the tactile experiences my child is having with both myself and his father and siblings, and my decision to stay home with him in these very early days, are potentially all having the effect of imprinting new genetic markers and overriding the experiences of his ancestors. There is the potential to lessen his chance of inheriting mental illness from his grandmother, and to increase his own capacity for nurturing and caring with his own children. These early days are so very, very important.

They’re mind-boggling really.

So when people question if I should give my little one more space, try to make him more independent, stop breastfeeding, stop co-sleeping, or let him cry it out when he’s upset as opposed to hugging him and cuddling him and giving him reassurance that he will be okay and that he is loved — none of that makes sense to me. I want to give him empathy, love, resilience, and security, to carry him into life and beyond. That I am able to give him this gift of love—an amazing, incredible gift—is absolutely necessary. It is indeed a gift to be able to provide him with these traits and experiences. I will continue doing so as long as we are able, and I know that he too will provide guidance to me through our relationship.

No matter what other people may think of it.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

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