What Makes a Child Happy?
There is no doubt as parents that we all want the same things for our kids. We want them to grow up to love and be loved, to follow their dreams and to find success. But most of all, we want our kids to be happy. If our kids aren’t happy, then we’re not happy. You can’t wave a magic wand and make your child happy, but there are certain things that you can do to make your children happy.
Evident from infancy, their temperaments come, at least in part, from their genes. But that doesn’t mean their ultimate happiness is predetermined, assures Bob Murray, PhD, author of Raising an Optimistic Child: A Proven Plan for Depression-Proofing Young Children — for Life (McGraw-Hill). “There may be a genetic propensity for depression, but our genes are malleable and can be switched on or off depending on the environment,” he says. “The research clearly shows that happy, optimistic children are the product of happy, optimistic homes, regardless of genetic makeup.” What can you do to create a home where your child’s happiness will flourish?
Here we take a look at some ways to get them on the road to happiness.
They eat on time
This seems a bit too simple to be a parenting strategy, but it really isn’t. It is incredibly important to make sure your kids are fed on time. Have you ever been so hungry you just want to scream? Well your kids go through the same thing. Make sure that you always give them enough sustenance to keep going and keep snacks on hand for times when there might be a delay in eating, like going out to a restaurant.
Eating at regular intervals refuels their growing brains and bodies and keeps hunger under control. When kids are calm and satisfied, they experience greater happiness.
Yes, it’s a fact that some kids are better sleepers than others, but while that’s a fact it isn’t an excuse for poor sleep habits. Kids need to learn how to sleep. It’s up to us to teach them. When they are completely exhausted, they are cranky. When they are well-rested and ready to embrace the day, they are happier. Make sleep and a consistent bedtime a priority.
Unstructured playtime appears to be a lost art these days. It used to be that kids made their own fun. Today, kids are over-scheduled, dialled in and in awe of toys that essentially do the playing for them. Sure, those garbage trucks with all of the bells and whistles are neat, but be sure to mix in some wooden trucks and building blocks. Don’t overschedule them, and make sure that every single day there is time for free play – it’s good for the soul and happiness!
The surest way to promote your child’s lifelong emotional well-being is to help them feel connected — to you, other family members, friends, neighbours, day care providers, even to pets. “A connected childhood is the key to happiness,” says Edward Hallowell, MD, child psychiatrist and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness (Ballantine Books). Dr. Hallowell points as evidence to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, involving some 90,000 teens, in which “connectedness” – a feeling of being loved, understood, wanted, acknowledged – emerged as by far the biggest protector against emotional distress, suicidal thoughts, and risky behaviours including smoking, drinking, and using drugs.
Fortunately, we can cement our child’s primary and most crucial connection to us simply by offering what Dr. Hallowell calls the crazy love that never quits. “It sounds hokey, and it’s often dismissed as a given,” he says, “but if a child has just one person who loves him unconditionally, that’s the closest thing he’ll ever get to an inoculation against misery.” It’s not enough, however, simply to possess that deep love; your child must feel it, too, Dr. Hallowell says. Hold your baby as much as possible; respond with empathy to his cries; read aloud to him; eat, snuggle, and laugh together.
Meanwhile, provide chances for him to form loving connections with others as well, advises sociologist Christine Carter, PhD, executive director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, an organisation devoted to the scientific understanding of happiness. “We know from 50 years of research that social connections are an incredibly important, if not the most important, contributor to happiness,” Carter says. “And it’s not just the quality, but also the quantity of the bonds: the more connections your child makes, the better.”
Don’t Try to Make Your Child Happy
As parents we can sometimes try too hard to make our kids happy. To make them happy however, we need to stop trying so hard in the short-term to make them happy. “If we put our kids in a bubble and grant them their every wish and desire, that is what they grow to expect, but the real world doesn’t work that way,” says Bonnie Harris, founder of Core Parenting, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons: And What You Can Do About It (Grand Central Publishing).
To keep from over coddling, recognise that you are not responsible for your child’s happiness, Harris urges. Parents who feel responsible for their kids’ emotions have great difficulty allowing them to experience anger, sadness, or frustration. We swoop in immediately to give them whatever we think will bring a smile or to solve whatever is causing them distress. Unfortunately, Harris warns, children who never learn to deal with negative emotions are in danger of being crushed by them as adolescents and adults.
Once you accept that you can’t make your child feel happiness, you’ll be less inclined to try to “fix” their feelings. You’ll be more likely to step back and allow them to develop the coping skills and resilience they’ll need to bounce back from life’s setbacks.
Nurture Your Happiness
While we can’t control our children’s happiness, we are responsible for our own. And because children absorb everything from us, our moods matter. Happy parents are likely to have happy kids, while children of depressed parents suffer twice the average rate of depression, Murray observes. One of the best things that you can do for your child is to take control of your emotional well-being – get some rest and relaxation, nurture your relationship with your spouse and you’ll be happier in the long run. “If parents have a really good, committed relationship,” Murray says, “the child’s happiness often naturally follows.”
Praise the Right Stuff
Not surprisingly, studies consistently link self-esteem and happiness. Our children can’t have one without the other. It’s something we know intuitively, and it turns many of us into overzealous cheerleaders. Don’t overpraise. It’s called “achievement praise” and it can backfire in a big way.
“The danger, if this is the only kind of praise a child hears, is that he’ll think he needs to achieve to win your approval,” Murray explains. “He’ll become afraid that if he doesn’t succeed, he’ll fall off the pedestal and his parents won’t love him anymore.” Praising specific traits like intelligence or prettiness for example can also undermine children’s confidence later; if they grow up believing they’re valued for something that’s out of their control and potentially fleeting.
“If you praise your child primarily for being pretty, for example, what happens when she grows old and loses that beauty?” Murray asks. “How many facials will it take for her to feel worthwhile?” Interestingly, Murray adds, research shows that kids who are praised mainly for being bright become intellectually timid, fearing that they will be seen as less smart, and less valuable, if they fail.
We’re not saying that you shouldn’t praise, however praise your kids for the right things – praise them for the effort as opposed to the outcome – praise their hard work, creativity and persistence that leads them to the achievement.
Allow for Success and Failure
Of course, if you really want to bolster your child’s self-esteem, focus less on compliments and more on providing her with ample opportunities to learn new skills. Mastery, not praise, is the real self-esteem builder, Dr. Hallowell says. As a parent it’s our challenge to stand back and let our children do for themselves what they’re capable of. One of the biggest mistakes you can make for your kids is to do too much for them.
While it can be difficult to watch our kids struggle, they’ll never know the thrill of mastery unless we allow them to risk failure. Few skills are perfected on a first try. It’s through practice that children achieve mastery. And through repeated experiences of mastery, they develop the can-do attitude that lets them approach future challenges with the zest and optimism that are central to a happy life.
Give Real Responsibilities
“Happiness depends largely on the feeling that what we do matters and is valued by others,” Murray observes. “Without that feeling, we fear we might be excluded from the group. And research shows that what human beings fear more than anything is exclusion.”
In other words, people have an innate need to be needed. So the more you can convey to your child that he is making a unique contribution to the family, from an early age, the greater his sense of self-worth and his ultimate happiness. Kids as young as 3 can play meaningful family roles, Murray says, whether it’s refilling the cat’s dry-food bowl or setting out the napkins at dinnertime. If possible, assign a role that plays to your child’s strengths. For example, if your little one loves to organise things, give him the job of sorting the forks and spoons. If he’s particularly nurturing, perhaps his role could be entertaining his baby sister while you get dinner on the table. So long as you acknowledge that he’s making a contribution to the family, it will heighten your child’s sense of connection and confidence, two prerequisites for lasting happiness.
Practice Habitual Gratitude
Finally, happiness studies consistently link feelings of gratitude to emotional well-being. Research at the University of California, Davis, and elsewhere has shown that people who keep daily or weekly gratitude journals feel more optimistic, make more progress toward goals, and feel better about their lives overall. For a child, keeping a journal may be unrealistic. But one way to foster gratitude in children is to ask that each member of the family take time daily, before or during a meal, for example, to name aloud something he or she is thankful for, Carter suggests. The important thing is to make it a regular ritual. “This is one habit that will foster all kinds of positive emotions,” she assures, “and it really can lead to lasting happiness.”
We hope this has helped you to understand the secrets to happy children. Why not try some of them and let us know how you go.