One of my favorite books is Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury. This dystopian text takes place in a society that is, when given a cursory view, very similar to our own. Though the book was originally published in 1953, Bradbury was ahead of his time with the technology he envisioned, including reality television programs, wall-sized television screens, and ear buds. The purpose of these technologies that Bradbury envisioned was to distract people from their own realities: to create a secondary reality where people have control and are, ultimately, able to eliminate even the possibility of sadness from their lives. Unlike many dystopian novels, however, there is no outside force imposing its will against the masses; it is the people themselves who choose to develop the society in which they live: a society that burns books and, more importantly, seeks to eliminate unpleasant thoughts and the possibility of unhappiness.
As the text progresses, we learn the central message of Fahrenheit 451: that a complete rejection of discomfort necessarily brings with it a complete absence of happiness. As adults, we all understand implicitly that the existence of (and possibility of) discomfort is necessary for true happiness to exist. Earning an A on a test feels good because the possibility of an F exists. Beating a worthy opponent in a basketball game feels better than beating a weak opponent because the potential to lose was always there. As adults, we know this. But do our kids?
Adolescence can be hard, as it is a time in which kids are figuring out a lot about themselves and their world. As such, perhaps the most important lesson we learn in adolescence is one of resilience. As kids, we all had hard times, some harder than others, but we made it through. We learned that we are capable, and with that knowledge, we learned to trust ourselves more. Not surprisingly, the happiest adults I know are not the ones who place themselves in a bubble, but are those who are confident in their ability to take on whatever life throws at them.
Every poll I have seen places student happiness at the top of the list of things parents care about. Thus, the question is how to help our kids learn to be happy. My suggestion is to help kids understand, like Bradbury does in Fahrenheit 451, that happiness cannot exist without the possibility of discomfort and that, ultimately, true happiness comes from the intrinsic understanding that they have what it takes to handle what lies in front of them. Call it grit, resilience, or confidence; I believe fully that it can be learned and that it must be reinforced, both at school and at home.
Our kids will have to work through challenges, but they have the wherewithal to get through them. They have a supportive community of friends, teachers, and parents who believe in their ability to deal with challenges and discomfort head-on. As adults, we can help them focus on their process and not get bogged down in the results. We can remind them that they have the ability to improve and move forward. We can assure them that a single test, or a single relationship, does not define them, and that it is not the situation, but their reaction to it, that will ultimately tell the tale.
When kids get the message that we believe in their ability to take on those challenges, rather than run from them, they learn some of the most important lessons we can teach them. When we make clear to our kids that we don’t expect them to be perfect, but believe in their ability to reflect and improve, they will learn to believe in themselves.