Across most of the Arabic-speaking world, Mother’s Day is celebrated on March 21. In reality, though, the adoration of mothers is as perennial as it is primordial – twenty-four-seven, three-sixty-five, since before man began. As Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, tweeted on the evening before Mother’s Day in 2018: “For us, every day is a day to celebrate mothers, for they are an eternal source of giving. We are proud of their role in the family, community and nation, and we pray for their happiness.”
But what would make our mothers truly happy? If asked this question, I suspect many mothers would selflessly wish for their children’s happiness and wellbeing.
The UAE has made great progress in safeguarding and promoting the wellbeing of the nation's children. Examples of this work include Federal Law No 3 of 2016, better known as Wadeema's law. This extensive child rights law aims to ensure that all children in the UAE can be safe and happy and has led to the establishment of various child protective entities. Continuing this tradition, last Tuesday, Abu Dhabi's Early Childhood Authority launched the World Early Years Development movement.
The WED movement is a remarkably ambitious initiative. It aims to provide innovative answers to some of the critical challenges of 21st century childhood. For example, problematic technology use, unhealthy lifestyles and how best to promote children’s emotional wellbeing. Although launched in the UAE, the aims of the WED movement are global. Many of the solutions conceived in Abu Dhabi will work equally well on distant shores. It was the poet Maya Angelou who wrote: “We are more alike… than unlike”. This statement is even more accurate when applied to children. Similarly, the Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel wrote, “human suffering anywhere concerns men and women everywhere”. Again, a statement that is even more valid when it is children who are suffering.
Research spanning decades is unequivocal about the lifelong detrimental effects of adverse events in childhood. From bullying and parental neglect to poor nutrition, the fingerprints of early adversity are all over the social, physical and emotional problems that emerge in adolescence and adulthood. In the US, for example, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that preventing adverse events in childhood would massively reduce some of the world’s leading causes of death and disability. This includes problems such as heart disease and suicide, substance misuse and depression.
What kind of things could we do to reduce the likelihood of children experiencing abuse and neglect? Better still, what could we do to actively promote positive growth, ensuring our children are psychologically resilient and enjoying optimum levels of emotional wellbeing. Answers to such questions will need to consider the child’s entire ecosystem and environment.
One place to start, however, is school. Bullying can be one of the most negative experiences for a child to endure. At the very least, most schools pay lip service to the idea of zero-tolerance for bullying. However, such a reactive and basic stance is no longer good enough. For me, schools should be more closely rated and ranked on how much they actively do to promote kindness and compassion among the whole school community. Children learn implicitly; if they see adults mistreating each other, it is no surprise that they too learn how to be unkind. There is a saying in Arabic, al-hilm qabl al-ilm: kindness before learning. Our schools would be wise to adopt this motto.
Another wellbeing innovation, one that has gained considerable prominence in recent years, is mindfulness. An attention training technique, mindfulness is used to explore emotions and reduce stress reactivity. This evidence-based approach to wellbeing has proven effective across a broad range of contexts, from reducing relapse in recurrent clinical depression to enhancing creativity and innovation. The UK's mindfulness in schools project was started in 2009 and aimed to make a difference in the lives of a generation of children by positively impacting their mental health and wellbeing. MiSP is on target to have taught over a million children practical mindfulness skills by 2025.
Also related to the work of MiSP, mindfulness will become part of the national school curriculum in Wales from September 2022. In preparation, all education professionals in Wales will be allowed to attend an eight-week adult mindfulness course. This is the most crucial part of the initiative for me: teachers becoming more mindful and compassionate, especially those working in primary school. Children learn their emotional responses, including kindness, by watching their elders.
Another innovation we might consider within the school context is an idea that I call the biophilic classroom. Biophilia is an idea popularised by Harvard naturalist Dr Edward Osborne Wilson. His central argument is that humans have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature and that the natural world soothes us. Classroom design should strive to be biophilic, using natural materials such as bare wood and stone, while also incorporating diverse forms of plant life. Such an environment can only impact the wellbeing of children and adults for the better.
If we want to honour mothers and make them happy, let’s think of innovative ways to promote their children’s mental health.
Justin Thomas is a professor of psychology at Zayed University and a columnist for The National