When you ask parents what they want for their kids, what’s usually the most common reply? They want their children to be happy.
Sometimes it’s hard to balance what’s best for children with what makes them happy — but the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
Happier kids are more likely to turn into successful, accomplished adults.
So looking at the science, what really works when it comes to raising happy kids?
Step 1: Get Happy Yourself
The first step to happier kids is, ironically, a little bit selfish.
How happy you are affects how happy and successful your kids are — dramatically.
And this is not merely due to genetics.
So what’s the first step to being a happier you? Take some time each week to have fun with friends.
More scientific methods for increasing your happiness here.
Step 2: Teach Them To Build Relationships
Nobody denies learning about relationships is important — but how many parents actually spend the time to teach kids how to relate to others?
(Just saying “Hey, knock it off” when kids don’t get along really doesn’t go far in building essential people skills.)
It doesn’t take a lot. It can start with encouraging kids to perform small acts of kindness to build empathy.
This not only builds essential skills and makes your kids better people, research shows over the long haul it makes them happier.
More on creating good relationships here.
Step 3: Expect Effort, Not Perfection
Note to perfectionist helicopter parents and Tiger Moms: cool it.
Relentlessly banging the achievement drum messes kids up.
The research is very consistent: Praise effort, not natural ability.
Why? Dweck explains: “When we praise children for the effort and hard work that leads to achievement, they want to keep engaging in that process. They are not diverted from the task of learning by a concern with how smart they might — or might not — look.”
More on praising correctly here.
Step 4: Teach Optimism
Want to avoid dealing with a surly teenager? Then teach those pre-teens to look on the bright side.
Author Christine Carter puts it simply: “Optimism is so closely related to happiness that the two can practically be equated.”
She compares optimists to pessimists and finds optimists:
- Are more successful at school, work and athletics
- Are healthier and live longer
- End up more satisfied with their marriages
- Are less likely to deal with depression and anxiety
More on how to encourage optimism here.
Step 5: Teach Emotional Intelligence
Emotional intelligence is a skill, not an inborn trait.
Thinking kids will just “naturally” come to understand their own emotions (let alone those of others) doesn’t set them up for success.
A simple first step here is to “Empathize, Label and Validate” when they’re struggling with anger or frustration.
Molly: “I am SO SO SO MAD AT YOU.”
Me: “You are mad at me, very mad at me. Tell me about that. Are you also feeling disappointed because I won’t let you have a playdate right now?”
Molly: “YES!! I want to have a playdate right NOW.”
Me: “You seem sad.” (Crawling into my lap, Molly whimpers a little and rests her head on my shoulder.)
Relate to the child, help them identify what they are feeling and let them know that those feelings are okay (even though bad behavior might not be).
More on active listening and labeling (and how hostage negotiators use this) here.
Step 6: Form Happiness Habits
We’re on step 6 and it might seem like this is already a lot to remember for you — let alone for a child. We can overcome that with good habits.
Thinking through these methods is taxing but acting habitually is easy, once habits have been established.
How do you help kids build lasting happiness habits? Carter explains a few powerful methods backed by research:
- Stimulus removal: Get distractions and temptations out of the way.
- Make It Public: Establish goals to increase social support — and social pressure.
- One Goal At A Time: Too many goals overwhelms willpower, especially for kids. Solidify one habit before adding another.
- Keep At It: Don’t expect perfection immediately. It takes time. There will be relapses. That’s normal. Keep reinforcing.
More on developing good habits here.
Step 7: Teach Self-Discipline
Self-discipline in kids is more predictive of future success than intelligence — or most anything else, for that matter.
Yes, it’s that famous marshmallow test all over again. Kids who better resisted temptation went on to much better lives years later and were happier.
What’s a good way to start teaching self-discipline? Help kids learn to distract themselves from temptation.
More on increasing self-discipline here.
Step 8: More Playtime
We read a lot about mindfulness and meditation these days — and both are quite powerful.
Getting kids to do them regularly however can be quite a challenge. What works almost as well?
Playtime isn’t just goofing off. It’s essential to helping kids grow and learn.
No strict instructions are necessary here: Budget more time for your kids to just get outside and simply play.
More on the power of playing (for kids and adults) here.
Step 9: Rig Their Environment For Happiness
We don’t like to admit it, but we’re all very much influenced by our environment – often more than we realize.
Your efforts will be constrained by time and effort, while context affects us (and children) constantly.
What’s a simple way to better control a child’s surroundings and let your deliberate happiness efforts have maximum effect?
More non-television happiness activities are here.
Step 10: Eat Dinner Together
Sometimes all science does is validate those things our grandparents knew all along. Yes, family dinner matters.
This simple tradition helps mold better kids and makes them happier too.
More on the power of family dinners here.
Here are the ten steps:
- Get Happy Yourself
- Teach Them To Build Relationships
- Expect Effort, Not Perfection
- Teach Optimism
- Teach Emotional Intelligence
- Form Happiness Habits
- Teach Self-Discipline
- More Playtime
- Rig Their Environment For Happiness
- Eat Dinner Together
We’re often more open to new methods when it comes to work and careers, but ignoring tips when it comes to family is a mistake.
The most important work you and I will ever do will be within the walls of our own homes.
– Harold B. Lee
I hope this post helps your family be happier.
This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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