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What Makes a Happy Child?

Ask any expectant or new mother about her aspirations for her baby and almost invariably she will say something along the lines of "I just want my child to be happy."

As grown-ups, of course, we know that happiness is often elusive. And a sunny disposition may have as much to do with nature (the genetic hand we've been dealt) as with nurture (external circumstances). Even where the latter is concerned, experts are far more certain about what is not relevant (such as money) than what is. What happy people do have in common, say researchers who have studied the subject, are certain key characteristics, including a good sense of optimism, close family ties, good friends, a gift for empathizing with others, and the conviction that their life has meaning.

For a new parent, the burning question is "What can I do to increase the odds that my child will have these things?" Part of the answer is fairly obvious: Accept your child for who she is, not who you think she should be. Be attentive to her needs, take her fears seriously, and really listen when she speaks to you. Above all, make sure she knows that you love her without qualification.

But these principals, worthy as they are, are somewhat abstract. What a parent really wants is a concrete way to achieve these ends. While we can't offer a foolproof recipe for happiness, we have come up with a top-ten list of not-so-obvious ways to steer your child toward her place in the sun.

1. Tap into tradition.

Whether it's eating dinner together, observing birthdays and holidays, or reading bedtime stories every night, nothing is more valuable to your family than establishing rituals and traditions, says William Doherty, PhD, author of Take Back Your Kids: Confident Parenting in Turbulent Times (Sorin Books). Capital-T traditions -- lighting Sabbath candles or making Christmas cookies from a recipe passed down from your great-grandmother -- are important because they lend meaning to your child's life, reinforcing the bonds among family members and anchoring her to something beyond the purely temporal. Equally precious, however, are the small, seemingly inconsequential customs and rituals that are unique to your immediate family -- the fact that you order Chinese food on Friday nights, say, or compose a funny poem for your child's first day of school each year. The familiarity and predictability of these routines make a child feel safe.

2. Say it with a song.

Claims that listening to classical music will make your child smarter are greatly exaggerated, but there is no doubt about music's mood-altering qualities. In ancient times, music and musical instruments were believed to have powers that healed both the body and the mind. In modern times, countless teachers have documented the therapeutic effects of song (in one 1996 study at the University Hospitals of Cleveland, children who listened to "I've Been Working on the Railroad" while getting an inoculation felt less pain than those who didn't have music played for them). And most of us know from everyday experience that a great song lifts our spirits and eases stress. After all, it's pretty hard to be in a bad mood during a rollicking rendition of "Old McDonald Had a Farm," especially if the whole family joins in.

3. Be community minded.

Active participation in your community sends at least two important messages to your child. When you coach a Little League team, for example, or pitch in at your preschool's fund-raiser, your child realizes that what matters to her matters to you. And that gives her confidence a powerful boost. But on an even more fundamental level, your involvement underscores the value of community itself. It makes kids feel that they are part of a larger whole, and that individuals can affect others in a positive way. Not surprisingly, research has also found a strong correlation between altruism and happiness, so why not get your child involved in helping others? Take her along when you volunteer at a local soup kitchen, or join in a neighborhood cleanup. Even young kids can discover the satisfaction of giving back.

4. Curb your cynicism.

We live in an age of ironic detachment, so you may not always be aware of the corrosive effect your flip comments have on your child. Yet a cynical attitude can take a huge toll on your child's sense of security, a crucial component of happiness. Kids need to believe that the world is a good place and that people are basically decent. Never mind that you have concluded that your child's teacher is an idiot or that your elected officials are incompetent. When you voice these opinions, you undermine your child's faith in the people and the institutions around her. As a result, she may begin to view the world as a scary place.

5. Encourage your child's passions.

Happiness researchers agree that being truly absorbed in a challenging task is perhaps the surest route to happiness. Being completely caught up in an activity can be achieved through all sorts of endeavors, from stamp collecting to painting to automobile repair. That's why it's important to expose your child to a wide range of experiences to see what appeals to him. This is not, we hasten to point out, an endorsement of the frantic overscheduling that has befallen so many children. The idea is to make your child aware of all that's available, allowing him to gravitate toward one or two pursuits that are meaningful to him. Even if your child throws his intellectual and creative energy into what will almost certainly be a passing fancy -- collecting Pokemon cards, for instance, or playing basketball morning, noon, and night -- the ability to totally immerse himself in an activity he loves will give him a leg up on happiness throughout his life.

6. Raise a nature kid.

In today's high-tech world, most of us don't take enough time to enjoy Mother Nature. Yet an appreciation of the natural world, with its dazzling array of everyday miracles, nourishes us in innumerable ways. Nature engages all of a child's senses, encourages reflection and acute observation, and helps stimulate the recognition of a just and purposeful existence, says Colleen Cordes, a founder of the Alliance for Childhood based in Takoma Park, Maryland. In other words, the inherent order we see in nature gives rise to a similar feeling in us. The certainty that each year the snow will melt and make way for crocuses, and that the green leaves of summer will deepen into orange and brown, provides a vital antidote to the frenetic, high-tech world most of us inhabit.

7. Bring home a four-legged friend.

Deciding whether to get a pet can be tough for parents: The commitment of time and energy is huge and (your child's assurances to the contrary) most of the pet care will end up being your responsibility. Still, there's convincing evidence that taking it on is worth the effort. According to Gail F. Melson, author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children (Harvard University Press), pets often provide reassurance when kids are worried and afraid. And kids absorb crucial lessons about empathy, loyalty, and attachment from the animals they love. Through nurturing pets and investing emotionally in them, children learn to care for and look after others, says Melson. In addition, pets make children feel valued and competent. Remember that a pet doesn't have to be a dog or a cat; guinea pigs, rabbits, and even small reptiles make lovely and relatively low-maintenance pets. If a pet is out of the question, your child can still get exposure to animals through visits to a zoo or nature center.

8. Make your house a home.

The advice to sharpen your housekeeping skills may seem trivial, but maintaining a pleasant domestic environment for your children is more important than you might think. If your house is disorganized or messy, kids are less likely to want to have friends over. Keeping things neat and in place give kids a feeling of peace and contentment. However, you don't want to turn into a compulsive neat-freak. Comfort is a big part of happiness, and kids need to feel free to run, jump, get dirty, and be occasional slobs in their own homes -- by themselves and with their playmates.

9. Serve happy meals.

As adults, most of us are aware that eating healthily, under pleasant, unhurried conditions, makes us feel better in both body and spirit. Children, though, rarely have that much insight into themselves. That's why it's up to parents to make mealtime a positive experience from an early age. That means turning off the TV, sitting down together as a family, and eating nutritious foods. The difference in kids' dispositions (not to mention their health) can be dramatic. In February 2003, ABC's Good Morning America reported on a secondary school in Appleton, Wisconsin, that saw its discipline problems plummet after it overhauled its lunchtime routine. Round tables replaced the standard rectangular ones in the cafeteria to create a more relaxed, convivial atmosphere, and the menu began featuring fresh fruits and vegetables, whole-grain breads, and additive-free entrees instead of the standard pizza, soda, fries, and vending-machine junk. To the amazement of the school's principal, discipline and behavioral problems decreased dramatically after the new program was introduced. Just imagine how your kids will benefit if you do this same thing at home.

10. Get physical.

This advice cuts two ways. First, show your children lots of physical affection: hugs, kisses, back rubs, tummy tickles. Apart from demonstrating that you're crazy about them, touch has the power to relieve stress and elevate mood. Second, you get your kids moving. Whether it's because strenuous activity releases feel-good brain chemicals such as endorphins (as one of the most popular theories maintains) or simply because meeting a physical challenge confers a positive feeling of achievement, a mountain of research has established a link between regular exercise and psychological well-being. In addition, children who are physically fit have a more positive body image than those who are sedentary. Finally, it's just plain fun for kids to run, jump, swim, ride bikes, and play ball -- ideally, with you joining in. After all, isn't having fun the most basic definition of happiness?

Copyright © 2003 AmericanBaby.com.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.