After a family trip in Florida, I'm suddenly stranded with my 3-year-old son at the airport while a blizzard tears through the Northeast. Joined by hundreds of frustrated families, I'm pretty sure we're all feeling caged and miserable. Well, almost all of us. Gabe seems to be having the time of his life. There's so much to do: enlisting new buddies in a game of hide-under-the-seats, "reading" the same picture books (for the gazillionth time), eating the junk food I so rarely allow him, and the ultimate thrill -- sleeping on the floor. Wow. Fifteen hours later, we're finally boarding the plane when Gabe grabs my hand and asks, "Mom, what day is this?" "Wednesday," I sigh wearily. "Well, let's do this again next Wednesday!"
Sure, it's great to have a kid with an upbeat attitude -- but believe me, I'm not giving myself a Mother-of-the-Year award. I tend to think he was born on the sunny side; there's even research to suggest it. Scientists are zeroing in on the possibility that a single gene could be responsible for making some people naturally positive and others pessimistic. It probably involves the production of serotonin, the brain chemical that's known to influence moods. Nevertheless, scientists estimate that only 50 percent of an upbeat attitude is genetic. "Happiness is really a wide range of positive emotions that are more learned behavior than inborn traits," says Christine Carter, Ph.D., executive director of the Greater Good Science Center, in Berkeley, California. "Our children develop their habits of thinking, feeling, and behaving based on what we teach them about the world, their relationships, and our expectations."
That's why it doesn't make much difference whether your child was born a Winnie the Pooh or an Eeyore. Boosting optimism, or turning a natural grump into a giggler, isn't the goal. "It's deep-down, everlasting happiness we're after," says Aaron Cooper, Ph.D., coauthor of I Just Want My Kids to Be Happy!
Who wouldn't want their children to have a firm foundation of contentment so they can learn to roll with the punches, enjoy what they have, and make the best of any situation? Inspired to find the roots of happiness, I spoke to experts as well as parents who say their children are truly content. I discovered that there are five keys to helping your kids stay in the bliss zone.
Most of us realize that the secret to happiness isn't owning a lot of stuff. It's really about instilling in our kids a strong sense of authentic gratitude and appreciation for what the world offers free of charge. The best way to do it? Feel it yourself. "When parents express gratitude for everyday events, their kids grow up feeling more joyful, enthusiastic, determined, interested, and engaged in the world around them," says Dr. Carter.
Lead the way by simply stopping what you're doing and expressing thanks for the moment, whether it's a beautiful sunset, an ice-cream cone, or the opportunity to spend an hour in the park together. According to the National Institute for Healthcare Research, we're more likely to say "thank you" to strangers or acquaintances than to our own family members or friends. But when we show appreciation, kids learn to do the same.
"For the last three years, we've been doing 'gratefuls' as part of our nightly bedtime routine," says Katherine Havener, of San Ramon, California. "Every night, we ask 5-year-old Brianna and 2-year-old Elea, 'What are you grateful for today?' It's such a beautiful and calming way to end the day -- especially since they're almost always grateful for us and each other."
You know how much it stings when you're venting to a friend and she says something like, "Oh, get over it." Kids have the same reaction when we minimize their problems. "Your child can only develop happiness and self-confidence if she feels completely and totally accepted," says Bonnie Harris, author of Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids. "Listen to your child without making any judgments about whether she's right or wrong. Your goal should be to hear her side of the story."
Let's say your daughter comes home from preschool and complains about a classmate who teased her. She might say, "I hate her!" or "I'm never going to be her friend again!" You'd probably say, "Don't talk like that. It's not nice." But that would only make her clam up and force all her unhappy feelings to either stay inside or grow, says Harris. "Instead, you could acknowledge her emotions and say something like, 'Wow, it sounds like she did something that really hurt your feelings.'"
Knowing their parents understand them is a crucial building block of happiness for kids. "When my 2?-year-old, Ariella, is upset, I want her to get as many of the tears out as possible so that we can leave the hurt behind," says Rosie Centeno, of New York City. "I ask her to tell me, or show me, what happened, and I just hold her until she stops crying or talking about it."
I've always found that sticking to a routine is a little like sticking to a diet. It's not easy, and I'm often tempted to blow it off. But when I commit to the program, inevitably, the rewards are undeniable: I feel in control and satisfied. Experts say it's the same with kids. "Daily rituals and routines are some of the most basic ways to instill a sense of security and pleasure," says Martha B. Straus, Ph.D., author of Adolescent Girls in Crisis. In fact, a review of 50 years of research on family routines in the Journal of Family Psychology found that rituals like family meals and bath and bedtime routines help children feel secure, strengthen family ties, and lead to greater productivity. They may even help improve their health by maintaining good habits such as brushing teeth, exercising, and washing hands. Another study, from the University of British Columbia, in Vancouver, found that these sorts of rituals provide a neurobiological benefit by stimulating both the left (logical) and right (emotional) sides of the brain. Families who eat dinner together regularly say it's easiest to make it happen by sticking to a set time and expecting everyone to be there -- no exceptions. Turn off the TV, and ignore the phone if it rings.
Jennifer Clarin, of Palmetto Bay, Florida, has created a routine that she swears makes bedtime a breeze for her 20-month-old daughter, Orli. "We always pick out three books to read, and then we sing 'The ABC Song' and 'Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.' Then Orli helps us turn off the light in her room. She settles down, as content as can be." Orli's grandparents and babysitter follow the same routine. "I think that it makes her feel safe," says Clarin.
We want our kids to feel good about themselves, so it's natural to try to remove obstacles along the way. Here's the rub: If we're always trying to solve their problems, they won't develop the ability to fight their own battles, accept when they're wrong, and learn to move on. "Children today have a lower tolerance for frustration, and they often have a harder time with delayed gratification," says Jenn Berman, Psy.D., author of The A to Z Guide to Raising Happy, Confident Kids. "However, handling stress or disappointments, admitting mistakes, and changing direction are some of the most crucial skills for living a happy life. The only way to master them is through practice."
When your child complains that he can't do something like finish a puzzle or put on his sneakers, don't try to convince him that he can. As grueling as it may be, show patience and say, "That's okay. There's no hurry. Next time you want to try again, let me know." Whether it's a few minutes or a few days later, he'll probably come back to the task at hand. If he gets aggravated and starts to yell, it's a good time to say, "I understand it's frustrating, but it's not okay to scream."
In our on-the-go culture, we often try to keep our kids busy 24/7. "But one of the beauties of childhood is being free to explore and discover your passions," says Alice D. Domar, Ph.D., coauthor of Be Happy Without Being Perfect and a Parents advisor. It also lays the groundwork for happiness as an adult. "In countless studies, people who know how to lose themselves in a creative 'zone' report feeling peace and contentment throughout their lives," says Dr. Domar. That's why it's important to give your kids unstructured time and space.
If your toddler has gym class at 10 a.m., music at 2 p.m., and a playdate at 4 p.m., he's hyper-scheduled. Young children don't need as many structured activities as we think they do. But also resist the temptation to be your child's constant playmate; it's crucial to learn early in life to enjoy your own company.
"My daughter, Dani, has always been an 'observer' -- the kind of kid who's happy to just sit still and stare into space," says Laurel Marx, of Great Barrington, Massachusetts. "It used to make me a little crazy because I felt she should follow a schedule or be more social, but I learned to let her go at her own pace and do what she wanted. Now that she's 8, Dani is a natural artist who loves to draw and who includes the minutest details in her masterpieces. If I hadn't respected her need to study the world around her, I might have held her back."
Originally published in the November 2008 issue of Parents magazine.