Parents are setting up their children for major disappointment if they focus too much on “wanting them to be happy,” Aaron Cooper and Eric Keitel contend in their thought-provoking book I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy!

The idea is that building up the ideal of constant happiness sends the message to kids that other feelings are unacceptable and can’t be discussed. This leads to children bottling up emotions and either suppressing them or expressing them in unhealthy ways. It also leads to children feeling like failures if every day isn’t filled with exuberant, positive feelings.

The book is a fascinating read, and will serve as a jumping-off point for the April 8 workshop in our Parent Education Series, led by Director of Student Support Services Kari Misulonas. We hope everyone will join us at 7:00 p.m. in the Arts Center for this free event!

As we get older, we come to understand that everyone experiences emotions such as sorrow, anger, frustration, and fear. This is what comprises the human experience, and is hard-wired through evolution to enable us to react to various situations. Emotions in and of themselves are not a bad thing — and verbalizing them brings us a sense of relief.

Parents can help children by listening, encouraging them to name feelings, and confirming those feelings are normal and OK. Although the temptation is often to fix or reframe tough situations in a positive light, often validating children’s feelings is more helpful.

Parents should acknowledge that it is normal to be feeling different emotions in a given situation, and that there are helpful ways to handle those emotions. Teaching children to separate emotions from actions is a skill they will use throughout their lives. For example: “Yes, you are angry, and that’s understandable. Let’s try some breathing and physical activity instead of lashing out at your brother.”

Social and emotional learning is a topic getting much more attention as of late. The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) has identified five core competencies which include self-awareness, the ability to accurately recognize one’s emotions; and self-management, the ability to manage one’s emotions, thoughts and behaviors. Social and emotional learning is increasingly correlated with success in job performance and mental health later in life.

Social and emotional learning may take different forms across a child’s developmental level. For our youngest learners at Morgan Park Academy, we emphasize identifying and verbalizing different feelings by recognizing facial expressions, behaviors, and situations. We encourage students to express times when they have felt sad, angry, or worried, and give them tools to help manage those situations.

We build on this foundation through the elementary grades, focusing not only on our own emotions, but on building empathy for others’ feelings as well. Some of my favorite tools for teaching about feelings include children’s literature, feelings charades (acting out different feelings or situations), artistic expression, and even an iPad app called “Emotions.” Identifying how characters are feeling in stories and how they might react is an activity that can work with nearly any children’s book or film.

MPA Middle School students continue this emphasis and learn developmentally appropriate ways to handle feelings, such as a unit on stress, mental health, and coping skills in health class or small group meetings with the principals and counselor to discuss various issues. We encourage Upper School students to discuss their feelings and opinions with their advisors as well as classroom teachers and encourage honest and open relationships.

Building strong emotional skills early in life can help children become comfortable talking about how they feel. This foundation proves beneficial through the teenage years and beyond when kids then are able to talk more openly about difficult situations.

At Morgan Park Academy, we emphasize empathy and understanding the human experience across subjects and encourage students to have a voice. Our campus is filled with caring adults who are here to listen to students, no matter what they are going through.

As Cooper and Keitel write: “As your children come to know that you can tolerate their feeling unhappy, they will be more likely to tell you how they feel. This is all you really need.”