Parents will do anything to make sure their kids are happy. We make sacrifices, abandon our own wants and needs, and generally bend over backwards if necessary. We all wish there was some magic formula to ensuring we’re raising happy kids.
But there are no guarantees. And, it seems, many parents focus on the wrong things. Showering our kids with gifts and material goods might make them smile, but spoiling them doesn’t help their future. Driving them hard because we’re convinced academic achievement is the key to success can also do more harm than good.
Ultimately, happiness is the most important thing for any child to have. A happy kid is a motivated kid, and more likely to become a successful, accomplished adult.
Can we help them become happier through our parenting methods? Christine Carter, sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, thinks so. In her book, Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents, she identifies how science has shown what really works when it comes to raising happy children.
1Be happy yourself
We are the first link in the chain when it comes to our kids’ happiness. How we feel affects them. Carter says research has shown a definite link between parents’ emotions and those of their kids.
“Parental depression actually seems to cause behavioural problems in kids; it also makes our parenting less effective,” she says.
How to do it: Make time for the things you enjoy. Hang out with friends regularly, go walking, cuddle with the kids. Laugh as often as you can. Even hearing laughter is good; neuroscientists have found hearing laughter triggers mirror neurons in the brain.
2Teach them to build relationships
We know relationships are important – but few of us make the effort to teach our children how to build them. They naturally form bonds with us and other family members. They make friends at nursery or school and stick to their peer group. But what they need are essential people skills.
How to do it: Encourage them to perform small acts of kindness and show empathy. Point out the joy caring behaviour can give to others. Teach them to consider how their actions will affect others and to put themselves in other people’s shoes.
3Celebrate effort, not perfection
Placing too much importance on achievement and results can have a negative effect on your kids’ mental health. It can also mean they make less effort in their endeavours in the future.
Carter notes that, “Parents who over-emphasise achievement are more likely to have kids with high levels of depression, anxiety and substance abuse compared to other kids.”
She says children lauded for their intelligence are less likely to show courage when it comes to tackling challenges in the future. They will take the easy option rather than risk losing their ‘smart’ status. This is not the case with children whose parents appreciate and encourage effort no matter what the result.
How to do it: Don’t brag about your child’s intelligence and achievements, especially in front of them. Praise them for the effort and hard work they put in; focus on that, rather than any end result.
Optimism and happiness are closely related. Carter has found optimists tend to be healthier and live longer. They are also more successful and more satisfied in their relationships, with fewer mental health issues.
How to do it: Show your children how to find the silver lining in every situation. It’s important they realise both good and bad things happen, but work with them to find the positive.
5Help them develop emotional intelligence
Emotional intelligence isn’t something we are born with – it’s a skill we learn. Understanding our own emotions as well as those of others is important. Help them identify their feelings, and make sure they know every emotion is normal and natural.
How to do it: Never dismiss their emotional reactions. Listen carefully to how they are feeling and their side of a situation. If something you do causes negative feelings, while you shouldn’t back down, show that you understand and empathise with their emotions.
6Form ‘happiness habits’
It takes a while for any habit to become second nature, but it’s worth the effort. Carter suggests several methods which have been backed up by research.
How to do it:
- Remove stimuli. Get any distractions and temptations out of the way
- Make it public. If people know your goals, you’ll get more social support (and pressure to make sure you attain them)
- One goal at a time. Get one habit in place before adding another; too much at once is overwhelming, especially for kids
- Keep going. Don’t expect perfection – changing a mindset takes time and there will be lapses
The ability to self-discipline plays a larger part in future success than any academic achievement. Remember the famous marshmallow test, where kids were left in a room with one of the sweet treats? They could eat it straight away, but if they resisted temptation for 15 minutes, they got two. Those who held out were reported as living happier, more successful lives years later.
How to do it: Encourage your kids to practise resisting temptation, in a similar way to the famous test. Planning and setting the limits of your willpower also means you’re more likely to stick to them. And never under-estimate the power of telling someone you will or will not do something – you’re more likely to stick to your word if you commit in advance.
8Make more playtime
Kids play less these days. Their time is more structured and filled with planned activity; the hours of spontaneity have been lost. But free play boosts cognitive and emotional development. It helps children learn mindfulness and develop intellectual, physical, social and emotional wellbeing. They learn to share, be part of a group, negotiate, resolve conflict and stand up for themselves.
How to do it: This one’s easy. Just make more time for free, unstructured play. Turn off the games console, put away the tablets, send them outside and let them play!
9Set up their surroundings for happiness
We’re all influenced by our environments – more than we realise. So it makes sense to ensure our surroundings are conducive to being happy. Want to know one of the most powerful ways you can do this? Switch off the television. Research has shown a strong link between happiness levels and not watching TV.
Sociologists are unsure whether watching lots of television makes people unhappy, or if they watch because they are unhappy. But evidence definitely shows happier people are in front the screen less.
How to do it: Another easy one. Switch off the television and do something else instead, ideally as a family.
10Eat dinner together
Sometimes, science just backs up something our grandparents said all along. It’s important to eat dinner together as a family. It’s traditional. It’s time to bond and catch up. It makes our kids happier.
Studies have shown that children who regularly eat with their families are more emotionally stable and less likely to drink to excess or take drugs. The risk of depression is reduced, and they tend to do better in school. In particular, adolescent girls are less likely to become obese or suffer from an eating disorder.
How to do it: It can be difficult if you have a demanding job with long hours. Not to mention after-school activities and domestic chores. But commit to eating together as many nights as you can and plan ahead. Don’t feel bad if the only way you can do this is to grab a takeaway.