7 Do's and Don'ts of Raising a Happy Child

Happiness probably tops the list of things you want to cultivate in your children -- just follow our list of what to do (and not do) when nurturing your child's positive outlook.

Do Let Your Kid Take the Lead

happy child outside

Spend "child-centered time" with your kid every day, says Joyce Nolan Harrison, M.D., assistant professor of psychiatry, division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Children's Center. This means putting away all distractions (read: your smartphone!), getting on the floor, giving your full "face-to-face" attention, and letting your little one lead playtime. "Do what the child wants to do, not what you want the child to do," she says. This isn't a new concept, but it can be extremely difficult for many parents. Start by dedicating just five minutes to playtime each day. "Inevitably, what happens," she says, "is parents want to do it more." If you have multiple kids, spend time individually with each one; combine their playtime only if they request it.

Don't Protect Kids From Failure

It may be one of the hardest tasks as a parent, but let your kid make her own mistakes -- and learn from them. To help kids prepare for sticky situations, help them learn to accept life's realities, such as conflict, struggle, and consequences. For instance, if your daughter repeatedly forgets to take her lunch to school, let her manage for herself in the cafeteria one day. If she isn't getting along with a teacher or a classmate, let her try working it out first. "Children have to deal with the fact that this world is full of flawed people," says Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness and a sociologist at UC Berkeley Greater Good Science Center. Avoid becoming a "helicopter" parent, who is always hovering, or a "snow-plough" parent, who swoops in and rescues a child before something bad happens. Instead, adopt a middle-ground approach to parenting. "The trick is to stay just far enough away that the child begins to develop her own autonomy, but close enough that if a child is floundering, the parents can come in and pick her up," says Dorothy Stubbe, M.D., associate professor and program director at Yale University School of Medicine Child Study Center.

Do Offer (Selective) Praise

Pop quiz: Your kid scores a 95 on a math test. You respond with: (A) You're so smart! I'm super proud of you, or (B) I'm glad that you studied hard. Keep up the great work! For the sake of your child's self-esteem and happiness, experts agree that option B is the best response, since it's better to dole out praise for an action than for a result. Praising inherent traits, such as intelligence, can make kids self-conscious, which may lead to unwanted complexes. The worst-case scenario is when a child evolves into a perfectionist and eventually feels insecure and believes he is disappointing you if he doesn't get straight A's. These days, parents tend to overpraise, so buck the trend by praising for concrete actions and effort. Dr. Carter notes that it's easier to comment on the end result, such as a high test score, but she recommends that you train yourself to praise "specific effort, because that's in a child's control."

Don't Criticize and Compare

Shining the light on unwelcomed behavior can often backfire. "Give a reaction when you want an action repeated," Dr. Harrison says. "Ignore things you don't want to continue. For some kids, a bad reaction is better than no reaction." In other words, say something nice when your daughter puts away her toys, but try to hold your breath when she doesn't share them with her little brother. Avoiding criticism boosts a child's self-esteem and helps keep her happy and motivated, Dr. Stubbe says. If your child repeats the bad behavior, try hard to continue ignoring it. If it persists, remain patient, and calmly explain to him why his behavior is not acceptable, and remind him of how he should act.

If you have multiple children, avoid comparing them with each other. Every child is an individual, so focus on individual strengths. For instance, if your son makes his bed every day but your daughter never does, tell him how much you appreciate his efforts to be tidy. Don't scold your daughter or ask why she can't follow instructions or be neat like her brother. But if your daughter does start making her bed (even if it's every other day), praise her. Set expectations that are reasonable based on their personalities. "It's important for each child to understand his unique value to you," Dr. Harrison adds.

Do Show Gratitude

"Gratitude and happiness are so strongly linked," Dr. Carter says. So practice gratitude with your munchkin on a daily basis, but appreciation lists shouldn't consist solely of toys and tablets. Teach your children to focus on being thankful for nonmaterial things, such as sleeping in a warm bed or taking an art class, to broaden their perspective. If your child can't rattle off a list, it doesn't mean he's not grateful -- he may simply need practice. "Kids aren't really taught to be grateful, but parents get upset when kids act entitled," Dr. Carter says. If your youngster isn't responsive, try a sneaky approach: At dinnertime or before bed, ask him to name three good things that happened that day.

Don't Hide the Negative

Positive stories are good, but negative ones are just as -- if not more -- effective, because they illustrate perseverance. Negative anecdotes enforce the idea that families can stick together and triumph through good times and bad. "No life is free from adversity no matter how healthy or wealthy you are," Dr. Carter says. "Kids need to learn how to deal with it." Help your child understand that she's part of something larger than herself, like family. Tell stories about your family, whether they're about you, your spouse, or extended relatives. Storytelling doesn't have to be formal. Try engaging with your children at dinner or during family gatherings. A person's happiness is deeply tied to the depth and breadth of her social relationships, Dr. Carter notes.

Do Prioritize Your Own Friendships

Happy kids have friends, so help your child develop his friendships. You can start by not neglecting your own friends. If you're worried about being selfish with personal time, drop the guilt. Spending time with your pals actually sets a good example for your children, because maintaining friendships helps teach the value of social relationships. "We're much better parents when we are happy," Dr. Carter says. Plan outings with the girls, whether it's grabbing coffee or getting a manicure. If it's hard to sneak away for adult-only time, invite a friend to join you and your child at the park or museum. Or if your friends have kids, trade off on hosting playdates at home or at a playground or zoo. Encourage your child to make friends too, and schedule playdates so that he can enjoy unstructured playtime.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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