How to Raise Happy Kids: Unplug for a While

To lighten the mood, pull the plug and connect with your kids.

Girl holding giant faux electrical plug Photograph by Priscilla Gragg

The families with the highest happiness quotients are those who feel truly connected to each other, say experts. They make time to focus on one another -- listen to problems, share a much-needed hug. But there's growing concern that our gadget obsession may be fraying these all-important bonds IRL. In researching her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, family therapist Catherine Steiner-Adair, EdD, interviewed more than 1,000 children and teenagers: "They talked about having to vie for their parents' attention with a screen. Kids recognize when we are disconnected from them." Her observations are borne out by a recent study in the journal Pediatrics. Almost three quarters of parents observed at Boston-area fast-food restaurants were reported to be using phones during the meal, and while they did, children often tried to get their attention.

No need to toss your iPhone, but do power down for regular screen-free time, especially during crucial moments like the morning rush. "You sound very different being interrupted when you're making eggs than when you're answering an e-mail from your boss," says Steiner-Adair. And keep reminding each other (adults and kids!): the key to happiness won't ever be found on that mesmerizing little screen.

    Make Happy Happen

    1. Declare tech-free times. The ride to and from school, for example, is a great chance to check the emotional weather or just daydream together. Ask some blue-sky questions: "If the car were a teleporter, where would we go?"
    2. Park your devices. To house mobile devices during dinner time, craft a "device parking garage." A large tissue box works well -- choose one in a pretty design and tag it with our printable Gadget Garage label (see below).

      The Dinner Dividend?

      The more families dine together, the less they whine together. "The more often families eat together, the less likely kids are to do drugs, smoke, get depressed, and ditch school, and the more likely they are to get good grades, look people in the eye, learn big words, and say 'please' and 'thank you,' " notes Kristen Race. To fit family dinners into a hectic schedule -- and make them count -- try these tips, then check out thefamilydinnerproject.org for more games and conversation starters.

      • Be flexible about timing. "We shift dinner around so that everyone can be there," says Christine Carter. "Sometimes we eat at 5:30, sometimes 7:30. Even when dinner seems compromised (it's takeout again, we're in bad moods), we're actually reinforcing its importance. Among the chaos, there's consistency."
      • Share your day. To get the most out of precious table time, Race's family plays "Rose, Bud, Thorn." Each person takes a turn describing her Rose (the best part of her day), Thorn (the worst part), and Bud (what she's looking forward to tomorrow). Turning sharing into a game may inspire kids to open up more.
      • Make dinner a priority. "If I'm driving to Cub Scouts, then basketball, while wolfing down dinner, I'm not paying attention to anything. I'm just surviving," says Jeffrey Froh. To protect mealtime, he and his wife limit their kids to two extracurricular activities each.

        Hues for Good Moods

        Can paint choices lift the household atmosphere? "No question, color has an enormous effect on our well-being," says Leatrice Eiseman, executive director of the Pantone Color Institute, the organization that advises retailers and designers on color trends. We asked about the best hues for a happy home.

        • play spaces: For an upbeat (but not-too-crazy) energy, consider cool brights, such as periwinkle or turquoise. Our pick: Dream I Can Fly by Benjamin Moore
        • kids' bedrooms: Look for golden or coral hues. "They are cheerful and engaging because they remind us of sunshine," says Eiseman. Our pick: Pineapple Soda by Behr Paints
        • kitchens: For a warm gathering spot, Eiseman likes red, rose, or orange shades, "or comfort-food yellow!" Our pick: Gladiola by Sherwin-Williams

        Originally published in the May 2015 issue of FamilyFun magazine.