Education Quandary

'My children want for nothing, yet they often seem dissatisfied. Can they be taught how to be happy?'
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The Independent Online

Hilary's advice

Possessions don't make children happy. If you doubt it, use the holidays to do some spot checks. Are the ones being dragged around shopping malls bursting with happiness at their new haul of carrier bags?

But children are forced to want new things all the time. They have to be made dissatisfied or they won't clamour for that ice cream, those trainers, that wide-screen TV. And then millions of jobs will be on the line, and civilisation will be in danger of collapse.

There's little you can do about this state of affairs, except perhaps to curb consumer spending at home, but parents and teachers can do a great deal to make children aware of the culture they live in, of themselves, and of what makes people genuinely happy.

Just for reference - in case you've lost sight of it yourself - this tends to include spending time with family and friends; feeling a useful part of your community; exercising mind and body; and having some central sense of direction and purpose to your life.

This is not to say you can teach happiness, as such. Rather, it is a question of steering children towards understanding their own minds, and recognising how different things will affect their moods and attitudes. And about how, in the end, it will always be their choice whether they choose to believe that the glass of their life is half empty, or half full.

Readers' advice

Teaching happiness sounds compelling, but children need to learn to understand the whole range of emotions and be able to deal with them positively and productively. What we are looking to do is to help children develop their social, emotional and behavioural skills.

About one-third of primary schools in England are addressing these issues through the use of "Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning", published by the Primary National Strategy last summer. This gives schools ideas for helping children learn to be self-motivated, to manage their feelings, and to build good relationships. Fifty-four secondary schools are also involved in the social, emotional and behavioural skills pilot project, which applies a similar approach.

Deborah Michel, senior regional adviser (Behaviour), Primary National Strategy

Pupils could usefully be exposed to some of the accumulated wisdom and evidence on happiness. Topics might include: the need for good relationships and for some degree of autonomy; the importance of living with a sense of purpose and according to a set of values; the value of good physical and mental health; the complicated relationship between money and happiness; the process by which we quickly take new possessions for granted, so that they lose their appeal almost as soon as we own them; and the way that "good enough" choices may well be good enough for a good life.

Marilyn Mason, Kingston upon Thames

Happiness cannot be learnt in the classroom, but you could certainly teach by example. Don't be materialistic; switch off the television and talk; spend time with your children; and be happy yourself.

Angela Elliott, Lincolnshire

Next Quandary

Dear Hilary

Supermarkets now sell healthier food, but when will they sell healthier books? Last week, I bought my children's school uniforms from my local superstore, but had to drive into town to get the parenting book I wanted, and some revision and reading books for my children. All the superstore had was celebrity biographies, cookbooks and trashy novels.

Send letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than next Monday 28 August at 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax: 020-7005 2143; or e-mail: Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser