How to raise a happy child

Everyone wants to be happy, and there are lots of ideas around about how to do it. Having been educated by TV, my ad-trained instincts tell me that dollars buy stuff, and stuff buys happiness. What could be simpler? And research seems to support that. Measurements of happiness done around the world show that the saddest countries are the poorest. But the thing is that with even a very modest increase in living standards, enough so you can feed your kids and have a roof over your heads, happiness levels soar to about the same as the affluent West. Ghana is as happy as Germany.

According to Dr Martin Seligman, author of Authentic Happiness, “As far as happiness and life satisfaction are concerned, you needn’t bother to do the following – make more money, stay healthy, get as much education as possible, change your race or move to a sunnier climate.” According to Seligman, these things actually have very little bearing on real happiness. (Call me stubborn for ignoring his research, but I still reckon being rich, healthy, well-educated and living in Hawaii would not actually make me unhappy.) What is Seligman’s formula for happiness? “If you want to lastingly raise your level of happiness by changing the external circumstances of your life, you should do the following – live in a wealthy democracy, not in an impoverished dictatorship, get married, avoid negative events and negative emotion, acquire a rich social network and get religion”. So that’s your happiness all sorted out. Now, what’s going to make your kids happy?

Your own happiness matters

Children are very sensitive to your emotions. If you are stressed and depressed, it will impact their sense of wellbeing immensely. Therefore, top of my list for raising happy children is to be a happy parent! Make sure there is time in your schedule and money in your budget for some pleasure and fun. You need a bit of maintenance – fun, leisure, time out, time away, time with your spouse, and time with your mates. You might be thinking you would be a selfish, neglectful parent if you did that. No. Tired, bored, burnt-out parents are selfish and neglectful, even if they are with their kids 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Their gloom will drag down everyone in their world.

Do the things that will lift your heart and give you extra resilience – listen to music, do some art, read good books, go for walks and make love a priority. And get some help for those niggling mental health issues that far too many parents struggle on with like martyrs. Anxieties and depression are so common it’s like a plague, and yet the great majority of cases are treatable with a little professional help. Do it for your kids. If you feel better, your kids will too.

Your relationship matters

If you’re parenting as a team, Mum and Dad together, the quality of your relationship has a profound impact on your children’s happiness. When you hug and kiss in front of them, they may howl, “Get a room! How gross!”, but they love it that you love each other. When your first priority when arriving home is to seek out and greet your spouse, when they see you using courtesy and affection toward each other, when you send the clear message to kids that your partner is the most important person in your world, it makes them very secure. Freud might say your little Oedipus will get jealous, but was Freud very happy?

Safe kids are happy

I bet your child is very safe. (Better fold over the corner of this page and go and check, though). Your child will be protected by locks, a car seat, smoke alarms and good adults. Your child is probably, in reality, very safe, but does he feel secure? Very young children equate safety with being close to a parent. Separation can feel very threatening. Of course children need to experience and cope with separation, and the key for happy children who can handle time away from their parents is how the separations are introduced into their world. Start with only brief separations, in a place they already know, with a carer they already know. Make sure your own expressions and demeanour are cheerful and confident – if you are distressed, your child will certainly pick that up – so fake it.

Older children get concerned about things they don’t understand. Imaginary monsters get superseded by things they hear (and often misunderstand) on the news, and they literally fear for their lives from robbers, home invaders and terrorists. I was in an intermediate school on the morning of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. The children had witnessed thousands of lives snuffed out while they ate their breakfast. Those events were so monstrous that even adult brains were wheel-spinning, and so it is understandable that their immature interpretations of the events were bizarre. There was a lot of excitement. “We’re going to be in a war!”. One girl ran around the playground asking people (including myself) which country we were from, presumably to sort out friend from foe. Another child’s incomplete geography added to her fear – she mistook ‘Washington’ for ‘Wellington’. As the days wore on, and the TVs kept showing the images of destruction over and over, I heard from several parents that their children became worried and anxious, especially at night. Protect them from alarmist TV news (maybe we would all be a lot happier without the news!). Interpret the world to them, and assure them of how safe they really are.

Belonging

Kids love to be part of a team, to belong to something. Even preschoolers are brand-conscious about the labels on their toys and clothes, and so let them know that they have a ‘brand’ – your family. Bring them up knowing that they are part of a team, and that your family does things in certain ways and has values and standards. They come to be greatly comforted by routines and traditions. Every time they run through the predictable pattern of bedtime or mealtime, they get a sense of, “I am where I should be. I belong.”

Use phrases to team-build, such as, “In this family, we always help each other!” “In the Brown family, we always treat guests well.” “Brothers might have fights at times, but brothers are also your best friends.” As children get older, explain about your family’s origins and culture. Cousins and extended family give children a richer sense of belonging to a web of humans. An interesting study showed adopted children usually had a better sense of knowing who they were than children born into a family. The parents obviously made it a point of deliberate emphasis, and it worked. An early experience of plugging into a family bodes well for developing a rich social network later in life – one of Seligman’s keys for happiness. As they grow, encourage their loyalty to sports teams, their school, their church, culture and nation.

Freedom

Are kids who have the most liberty the happiest children? Definitely, they are very happy, until they experience the calamity that adult limits should have protected them from. The child who has the freedom to avoid dental care, inoculations and eating vegetables will have a much bigger smile, but only until that smile is wiped off their face by toothache, tetanus, and scurvy! So children do need limits – to keep them safe from things that would make them very unhappy. In fact, children without boundaries and limits come to interpret it as a lack of love and caring. But children really do enjoy the experience of being given greater and greater choice. Keep an eye on their increasing maturity, and reward it with extra liberty, “Seven year olds aren’t allowed to climb that tree, but you are eight now. You are allowed to climb up to that branch there.”

Freedom means giving your children a certain amount of power, and ‘power’ is one of the key things that Dr William Glasser sees as being essential for human happiness. Children should have the power to say ‘no’ to siblings, they should have ownership of some toys, books, money etc. which they have control over, and not be required to share. Freedom to choose gives them a great sense of significance. You define the range, but they can pick within that range. “You can have any of these shoes, but the limit is $30.” “What would you like to eat? You can have any of the fruit in the bowl or I can make you a sandwich.”

I’m sad that modern children are denied the wandering and exploring that filled so many of my childhood days. I wasn’t being neglected – the biggest danger in Henderson in the 1960s was probably me! Maybe the Huck Finn /Tom Sawyer era is over, but do allow your children to occasionally just find their own fun. The kids who need to be constantly programmed and entertained are not going to be the happiest children. I’ve seen very happy kids playing with a stick, and very miserable ones with a room full of toys. Many children are over-indulged with entertainment and stimulation. Dr Sylvia Rimm asserts that an over-indulged child is just a miserable as a deprived one.

Happy children have fun!

Squealing with delight, giggling, whooping with excitement – when you hear those noises on your home videos when your kids are grown up, you will think they are the most wonderful sounds on the planet. But you may not think that at the time the kids are actually making that din. You just wish they would hush up so you could listen to the news. I reckon fun is parenting’s secret weapon. It builds relationships, lifts moods and creates happy memories.

They say (I don’t know who ‘they’ is, but “I say” sounds presumptuous) that the main thing people remember about their childhood is the ‘atmosphere’ of the home they grew up in. Was the atmosphere one of harshness, barely-suppressed anger and chill, or an atmosphere of warmth, friendliness and acceptance? The fastest and easiest way to improve the atmosphere is just by having fun. Kids love it when parents are playful, and want to spend time with them down on the floor, or playing on their bed. Quick, put this mag down again and go have a rough-and-tumble with your kids, before they’re suddenly grown up.

Happy kids know they are loved

You can make many mistakes as a parent (hear the voice of experience) but as long as your kids know that you love them, it’s amazing what they will forgive! It amazes me how parents can be shy about expressing their love to their children, reluctant to kiss them or give them a hug. Maybe it is because we take our lead from them, and they do go through stages where they feel a little uncomfortable about affection, especially as they transition into puberty. Studies show that boys, especially, receive dramatically reduced amounts of touching as they reach school-age, and that positive, affectionate touch can drop to zero as they enter adolescence. Sad. And I think it makes them sad too. Push past their prickliness and give them a kiss. Maybe not in front of the rest of their rugby team, but when the time is right. And don’t forget the words, the little gifts, the kind acts, and choosing to spend time with them – it all transmits affection. It can be tough being a kid, and maybe at times they will feel lonely and rejected by everyone else. But always let them know, come hell or high water, whether they are being good or naughty, you absolutely, totally love them. And if you haven’t let them know that today.

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About Author

John Cowan

Writer, speaker and broadcaster, John Cowan shares his insight and opinions about the latest in parenting and family news in New Zealand. Hear John speak on radio stations every week throughout the country and regularly on national TV.  Follow @JohnCowanNZ on Twitter

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