RESTLESSLY waiting to be taken to a friend's house, my 12-year-old is badgering me alta voce to hurry up. I shout at him to leave me alone and let me finish what I am doing. He makes for the door, upset, bumps into a file of papers and scatters them everywhere. I screech at him. He leaves, slamming the door and protesting in a tearful voice that I never have time for him. A couple of hours earlier I'd told my elder son, on holiday from boarding school, that I was too busy to go to a show with him. Like flies, I swatted them away and was left with that familiar guilty feeling that I'd short-changed them. I'd failed to create an idyllic, Laurie Lee-style childhood for them.
Wanting to give children a happy childhood is the most universal parental ambition, but what do we mean by the term? How do we achieve it? How many minor failings does it take to make a major trauma? Does refusing to buy the latest Nintendo game cancel out the memories of a seaside holiday with limitless ice-creams and both parents building sand- castles? Will the days when you drop everything to go biking or swimming, or to play football, be the things they recall - or will children simply remember the days when there was no time for them? Such questions are important. As a century of psycho-analysis and developmental psychology has told us, childhood experiences shape the kind of adults we become; they are also what we give our children. In the words of one mother: 'I had a lovely childhood with a great sense that my Mum and Dad enjoyed my being a child, whereas I hear a lot of parents urging their children to be grown-up, to stop being so childish - as though their childhood is nothing but a nuisance. When my first child was born,
I felt I wanted to give him the same sense
of a carefree, protected space that I'd had. I saw it - and still do see it - as a gift to give one's kids.'
This is a beguiling idea, but the happy childhood we construct in our imaginings may not be so simply given or so willingly received. Nor is there a straightforward recipe which, if followed, will guarantee that the 'gift' is perfect. A baby arrives with its own genetic make-up - and, like any important human relationship, the one between child and parents has to evolve through interaction and negotiation.
There are certainly things parents can do which will boost a child's happiness. The most important, believes Hugh Jenkins, director of the Institute for Family Therapy, is that parents should allow children to be who they are - with respect for their feelings, tastes and ideas. Rather than starting out with a set idea of what a happy childhood is, and hoping to create it, parents should go with their instincts and be led to some extent by their child.
'There is not and should not be a prescription for childhood which is imposed,' Jenkins says, 'although there are certain things children require from parents in order to feel good about themselves. Whimsical and romantic representations of childhood like Laurie Lee's Cider with Rosie can make people feel they have to create a special aura around childhood. When they fail, they feel bad. But in truth, children's happiness can be far more mundane than that.'
What parent wouldn't glow at the idea of their child remembering, as Wordsworth did, 'Happy time. . . a time of rapture'? In truth, though, Philip Larkin's 'forgotten boredom' might well represent equal contentment. As child psychotherapist Miranda Passey puts it: 'The child whose life is fine, who is not overburdened with anxiety and distress and who feels loved and approved of, may not be having non-stop special times or heightened experiences. Indeed, it is the happy child who may have a space to experience boredom, who is unworried enough to get on with life, enjoying the good bits and being cross about the bad. Whereas unhappy children are aware that things feel wrong, that the world is not a comfortable place to be in, that they cannot make things all right.'
The idea that we can make or break something as important as childhood wellbeing is daunting, and can too easily give the idea that we either succeed or fail with nothing in between. But it is generally agreed by professionals that few, if any, parents are likely to achieve perfect parenting - and that this does not matter. Child psychologist Donald Winnicott got it right with his concept of the 'good enough' parent whose daily childrearing may be a warts-and-all affair involving conflict, difficulty and disapproval - but whose bottom line will be empathy with his or her child.
In the words of Bruno Bettelheim, who spent a lifetime working with children and deconstructing the damage many had endured: 'Empathy requires that one consider the child an equal - not in regard to knowledge, intelligence, experience or maturity, but in respect of the feelings that motivate us all.'
But as Hugh Jenkins points out, there are nevertheless certain conditions that create a baseline for childhood happiness.
LOVE AND APPROVAL
The importance of children feeling loved, and the absence of self-esteem in those who do not, has been the subject of countless research projects. The theme dominates literature examining all aspects of child development - from children who fail to thrive, to those who turn into psychopathic criminals.
In terms of a child's experience, though, what does love mean? Child development expert, Penelope Leach, expresses it this way: 'A child should be conscious of there being at least one person of importance who, unconditionally, thinks they are bloody marvellous. It is this which makes a person value themselves and love themselves, and makes them capable of valueing and loving other people. And this, surely, is a vital source of happiness.'
For author Jean Rhys, whose adult life told poignantly of the emotional fragility she carried from childhood, that vital love came from her Great Aunt Jane. 'She was the one person who loved me exclusively and really,' she said. For Lisa Tellman, 29, mother of an 18-month- old son, 'It was the fact that my parents would stop and listen if I was upset by something they did. No matter how tired they were, they would make the effort to come and sit on my bed at night and chat to me, which seemed the strongest proof of their real love.'
Unconditional love means that children know they are sufficiently important that, no matter how angry, confrontational, disobedient or unpleasant they are - and however little parents like their behaviour at these times - they will not be turned away and rejected. It means, says Miranda Passey, that they can believe that their feelings matter and will not be belittled, humiliated or have their distress ignored.
Through her work in a child guidance clinic, Passey sees the distress of children who do not feel loved or lovable. 'These children feel they never quite match up to parental expectations, whether that is done by achieving something external or being the type of person they feel their parents wanted. To help these children, I need to get the parents to look at what is going on in their lives, what their expectations are. When parents recognise what is going on, you see the pain lifting from the child.'
It is difficult for children to be happy if they do not feel secure. Physical security - feeling safe and protected at home - is clearly important. Being sent to boarding school or holiday camps suits some children very well, but their security may rest on knowing that if they are unhappy they will not be forced to stay.
By contrast, children who feel they must do as parents have planned no matter how great their own misery, may suffer lifelong insecurity. The late Roald Dahl described with caustic wit the horror of his school days; the rage, despair and humiliation he suffered surfaced over and over in his writings.
Psychological security is vital, but how does a child come to feel that the world is a secure place? 'Children are helped to feel secure,' Penelope Leach says, 'when their wishes are taken into consideration, if their ideas and thoughts are taken seriously. Then they can feel pleased with who they are. They also need to know what is expected of them, that their parents mind where they are and what they are doing. It can be very frightening for children if they are allowed to do as they please even when they know it is unwise or dangerous.'
Leo Moynihan, 19, talks of how successfully his mother provided security when she separated from his father: 'She never seemed upset or angry in front of us, and she always talked about what had happened so that we could do the same. The other thing I really value is that Mum has always been welcoming to friends so they want to come to my home.'
Laura Buchanan, 18, would do as her father did and give her children 'lots of hugs'. 'It didn't matter how cross my parents had been with me,' she says. 'There were always hugs and cuddles at the end of the day and that made me feel very safe and secure.'
JUSTICE AND PRIVACY
Justice is all important to children's sense of wellbeing; those who feel their reasons and defences have no voice against the 'always right' parent may live with a suppressed rage which will surface later in life, or turn into depression.
Miranda Passey explains that it is important that parents show they are strong enough to make mistakes and admit it. 'Then the child can respect the parents when they are firm about knowing best or being right and understand that it is reasonable,' she says. 'In turn, they themselves feel respected if a parent considers their feelings important enough to apologise when appropriate.'
PLAY AND FUN
It was Montaigne's observation that children at play are not playing about, but that their games should be seen as their most serious-minded activity. Most parents would agree that play is a good thing. And yet for all the trips to playgrounds and the millions of pounds spent annually on toys, children's play time has shrunk and continues to be under threat in our activity-crazed culture.
'For many 'privileged' children,' Penelope Leach says, 'life is packed full of activities intended to be fun, perhaps, but also to improve the child. That is very different from play, where children generate their own ideas and rules and are free to explore fantasies and let their imaginations run. In this kind of play, children solve problems, work through things which worry and puzzle them and experience real enjoyment.'
Observing children using play as a form of communication, Miranda Passey agrees. 'For a child to be able to play,' she says, 'there has to be a mental space which allows something to happen.' She recalls seeing a two-year-old who trailed about the room saying 'What shall we do now?' and had never been able to explore for himself what he might want to do - such as playing with water, which he did at her clinic. 'This child found it hard to play because his mother was very anxious,' Passey explains. 'She controlled him closely, so he was never free to explore the world in his own way.' Jenny Tuttle, who is 17, says: 'The best thing my parents did was to let me drop the after-school activities they set up, which were quite fun but utterly exhausting, and let me visit friends, listen to tapes, go for walks, just sit around.'
The essence of play is fun, and children left to their own devices are well able to enjoy themselves - but memories of happy childhood often include times when parents have joined in. Delight shows in the faces of small children when they are joined in building a brick house or when Mum or Dad dresses up as a monster and joins in a fantasy game. Perhaps this is why family holidays, when parents have more time for their children, are so often pulled from the memory bank as examples of happy times.
Barrister Helena Kennedy, exploring the mother-child relationship in Katherine Gieve's book Balancing Acts (Virago, pounds 5.99), coined the phrase 'languorous time'. By this she meant something she had had to make way for in a life that piled endless opportunities and demands on her. She talks of the delight her children take in just spending time with her doing whatever seems appealing - which is often very little.
The essential point is that we not only stop and think about who our children are, and the cause and effect of what we do to them and for them - but that we enjoy them. As Hugh Jenkins says: 'Children are made happy by their parents' happiness'. Or, as Ogden Nash put it: 'Children aren't happy with nothing to ignore. And that's what parents were created for.'
HAPPISET DAYS OF SOME LIVES
Author. Two children
'My parents brought us up with benign neglect, which was wonderful. We had a great sense of freedom, the feeling that the world was there for us to explore and that we could do as we pleased. At the same time we knew they minded about us and that if anything happened they were there. We also knew that if we went too far they would come down sharply, although rules were not really specified. Rather we simply understood what was and was not acceptable. I try to give my children this same freedom because I think it the key to happiness.'
Author. Two children
'My childhood was happy. I had the right mixture of being loved and having freedom. It was not an oppressive love, but I never felt unloved in the way children can when they are never let out of sight. There were three children in my family. My parents were permissive all the way. They let me do things I wouldn't let my own children do and I'm grateful for that. We were allowed one cigarette at Christmas, starting at age six.'
Film producer. One child
'My mother was so scatty and crazy. She would leave me in a pram and rave off. She was so young, only 17. I loved her. But it's not youth so much that helps; it's generally being a happy person. The person you're around has to have a strong sense of humour, a strong sense of fun. My wife, Elizabeth, and I feel this way about our six- month-old daughter, Edith. You don't want problems to be theirs. Why burden them?
'We lived in one room, my Mum and Dad and three younger sisters. At age nine I was sent to a boarding school for asthmatics. Maybe it's easier to have children when you're young if you're poor, before you have the energy battered out of you. The person I feel most for is a single mother of 29 trying to raise a child in post-Thatcher Britain in poverty. We, on the other hand, have all the time in our lives for our child.'
Television producer. Three children
'I had a very happy childhood because my mother was 17 when I was born and we grew up friends. My early memories are not of a mother in an authoritarian sense. My grandfather died at 49. My grandmother went into a state of shock, so the doctor advised my mother to let my grandmother keep me for a year. For my first 18 months I was spoilt silly by maidservants. I was surrounded by women] Ours was a crusty aristo family. As there were always mediators, retainers and servants for us, our parents and grandparents could be very loving.
'The best thing, for my own children, is to treat them as human beings, to reply seriously to their serious questions. We chat, talk and laugh. The children had childminders, but we never had anyone living in. They have gone back to Pakistan every year to stay in touch with my family out there.'
Fashion designer. Two children
'I was made desperately miserable by being sent to boarding school when I was eight. I felt abandoned and banished. I cried for the first few days and then I learnt that it did no use and that I just had to put up with my misery. But the price was high: I think it made me cauterise my emotions. I'm not sure that my parents ever realised, but that was because I couldn't talk to them about my feelings.
'With my children I talk to them all the time and ask them endless questions about what is going on with them. I don't want to feel they would suffer some misery without my knowing. And I am very expressive and tactile with them - lots of touching and hugs.'
Queen's Counsel. Three children
'My father was expressive, my mother less so - but both made me feel absolutely that I was loved and approved of. I felt I was taken seriously, and that seemed very important. My parents also managed to make my sisters and me feel equally loved and significant, so there was really very little jealousy between us and now we have a strong and caring bond.
'One of the things I'm very conscious of is that there's a terrible tendency for educated parents to be too invasive in their children's lives. And that is the very antithesis of the wonderful sense that remains from my childhood, of being allowed to get on with what I wanted.'
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies