From the Head Master

From the Head Master

It is not uncommon, in discussions with parents, to hear them say about their son ‘I just want him to be happy.’ As a parent myself, I understand the sentiment and I certainly don’t want to suggest that being happy is a bad thing. However, I am not sure that focussing on ‘happiness’ is the best way forward.

For one thing, happiness comes and goes. There are times to be happy but there are also times to be sad. Both have a valid place in the normal human experience; Mr Barr has touched on this point further in his column today.

Secondly, happiness is best understood as a by-product, rather than a goal. Happiness tends to recede as it is pursued. In addition, the pursuit of individual happiness can take us in the direction of self-centredness, whereby other people are valued on their utility to us rather than having meaning and value in themselves.

For what it is worth, I think that we, as parents and as educators, would do better to aspire for character and virtue in our children rather than their happiness. Responsibility, resilience, trustworthiness and kindness would all be better aspirations. Wanting our boys to be respectful, to be courageous, and to be patient makes more sense – both for them and for the communities in which they will live and contribute – than just wanting them to be happy.

Having attempted to downplay the significance of happiness for our children, I want to bring your attention to some research that touches on the topic of their happiness. Jean Twenge, who has done some outstanding research exploring the impact of technology on young people and which was published in her book iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – And Completely Unprepared For Adulthood wrote a brief article in the 2019 edition of the World Happiness Report. You can read her article here.

In summary, Twenge observes that reported levels of happiness among American adolescents decline sharply from 2012 onwards. After canvassing related issues and possible explanations, she hypothesises that a key issue may be the way that American adolescents spend their leisure time. Over the last decade, the amount of time spent on screens (gaming, social media, texting and general internet usage) has increased and the amount of time spent socialising face to face, reading and sleeping has declined. “Overall, activities related to smartphones and digital media are linked to less happiness, and those not involving technology are linked to more happiness.”

Twenge’s article was written before the pandemic and its impacts, it focuses on American adolescents, it identifies correlation (not causation), and there are other aspects that would incline us to be cautious about overstating the case. Nonetheless, the research supports a conclusion that many of us have reached intuitively, both for our children and for ourselves.

All of which is to say, if the happiness of your son is important to you, setting boundaries around his use of screens is a practical way that you can help. So too is assisting him to use his leisure time in ways that do not involve screens. In this context, I note that the term away for the Year 9 Field Studies Programme, in which the boys do not have phones or gaming consoles and in which they spend ten weeks finding other things to do with their time, must be understood as a beneficial experience.

In any case, leaving aside the issue of happiness, I am not aware of any research to support the idea that the online environment cultivates positive character and virtue in our boys. In our school and others, we often encounter evidence that the online environment may foster the very opposite of positive character and virtue. May God grant us wisdom to know how best to see our boys grow to become good men.

Detur gloria soli Deo

Tim Bowden | Head Master

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