Three ways to help a child to live the good life

By Heather Grace McKenzie

So what exactly is ‘the good life’?

Scene from The Good Life television series

The 1970s sitcom called ‘The Good Life’ made an impact on me. I was very young when it aired, but I realised when watching it that in many ways, as a family, we were already living the good life. I had a fairly unusual upbringing on a farm on the Isle of Islay – I say ‘unusual’ because at any point in time our house was home to at least 4 different species of animal, plus my sister, my mother and me. It was not uncommon to find ducks waddling around the house, lambs in the playroom, plus the more mundane – dogs, cats guinea pigs etc. We lived off the land – grew our own vegetables, ate our own meat (a concept I sometimes struggled with), and often bartered for whatever we didn’t have. My sister and I spent our time, when not in school, barefoot and outdoors; we climbed trees and invented games. This closeness to nature encapsulates some of what the good life is, but it certainly isn’t the whole story…

Recently I noticed a friend’s Facebook post, saying that she was “living the good life” on holiday. She was perhaps referring to ‘living it up’ with good food, drink and a lovely place to stay, but I don’t think that her idea of the good life is quite the same as that proposed by ancient Greek philosophers. It reminded me that many of us may have lost touch with what the good life actually is, and may not be fully engaged with making our normal day-to-day work and home lives ‘the good life’.

Ancient Greek philosophers were onto something when they suggested that the good life is one that is concerned with the development of human potential – where each of us cultivate our innate strengths, abilities, virtues and passions for the good of others as well as ourselves. The good life is one that promotes the greatest wellbeing for all.

The good life invites us to become the best versions of ourselves that we can possibly become and does not depend on our emotional landscape. We can experience wellbeing at the same time as experiencing difficult emotions – it all depends on attitude. The good life asks that we develop virtues such as wisdom and knowledge, courage, honesty, loving connection, a sense of fairness, forgiveness, humility, appreciation of beauty, gratitude, humour, hope and spirituality. It also asks us to engage in pursuits that develop our natural abilities and interests.

Where do your passions and natural talents lie, and do you nurture these passions?

Do you love to dance, paint, make music, climb mountains, play strategy games, write, sing, act, play sport… or something else? What makes your heart sing? What makes you feel more alive?
Sometimes activities that we previously loved to engage in simply slip from our lives without us really noticing. Life events can cause priorities to shift and we may find ourselves very much needing to focus on others, with less time for ourselves. But the good life never forgets about us – it’s always there in the background, calling us to be all that we can be.

Ways we can teach a child to live the good life…

1. Model what it means
Perhaps the best way to teach a child to live the good life is to live it for ourselves – our actions speak so much louder than words. To do this, we will require mindfulness (being aware of what we’re doing, while we’re doing it, with a certain kind of an attitude) so that we can marry intention with action. We also need to start having conversations – lots of them – about living meaningfully.

We can go to school, get qualifications, get a job, raise a family, retire, collect a pension and grow old in a care home without ever having truly lived.

Living the good life is a process, not a destination, and is focused on promoting the wellbeing of both ourselves and others – but how often do we stop to consider whether what we’re doing or saying is contributing to anyone’s wellbeing? We must regularly take stock and check that we are staying true to our compass bearing. If not, rather than beating ourselves up, we need simply to notice and adjust our direction.

2. Grow something 
Whether it’s growing an ability or growing a cucumber, it doesn’t really matter (unless you’re looking for something to put in a sandwich, in which case the cucumber is probably preferable). The point is, life isn’t meant to stand still… life wants to express itself through each of us, and that means movement and growth. Cultivation. Development. Decide with a child what they’d like to grow, and plant the seed – either literally or figuratively. Then, crucially, remember to tend to it.

3. Talk about values
When teaching mindfulness to children, I find so often that children simply don’t have a language to explore value and it can be a completely alien concept to them. When I asked a teenage girl recently what she valued in life, she replied, “Shoes”. My heart sank a little, if I’m honest!

What do you value, and what does your child value? Many clues will be present in what they say, and we can use these clues as ways in to explore values with a child. For example, we might say, “I noticed that you were very cross when your brother told you he didn’t take your marbles but then you found them in his room. It appears to me that you value honesty? I value that too.” This example obviously touches on related issues such as trust and integrity, but is also an opening into a discussion about compassion – when individuals behave in ways that aren’t very honourable, the root of the behaviour often relates to fear (of not having enough, or being enough) and when found out, fear or reprisal or being told off, which essentially confirms our fears that we weren’t good enough.

It’s important to work out what we value, attend regularly to prioritising our values, and have these kinds of conversations often with children. With young children we can use the context of heroes or heroines as a way in, noticing the attributes that they value in characters they connect with and exploring this with them. My eldest, when a toddler, loved ‘Bob the Builder’ because he could fix anything that was broken and he was really reliable. You could depend on Bob if you were in trouble and this was clearly something that my son valued.

And finally…
More than anything, the good life asks that we don’t simply exist, but that we live life as fully as we can, engaged with life with energy and vitality and caring for the wellbeing of ourselves and those around us, including this beautiful planet that supports us. The process of living the good life is, then, a powerful force for good, and one that we must engage in if we are to truly thrive rather than simply survive.

Heather Grace MacKenzie is a mindfulness and compassion teacher based in Strathaven, Scotland, and author of Awakening Child: a journey of inner transformation through teaching your child mindfulness and compassion.