We all want the same things for our kids. We want them to grow up to love and be loved, to follow their dreams, to find success. Mostly, though, we want them to be happy. But just how much control do we have over our children's happiness?
My son, Jake, now 7, has been a rather somber child since birth, while my 5-year-old, Sophie, is perennially sunny. Jake wakes up grumpy. Always has. Sophie, on the other hand, greets every day with a smile. Evident from infancy, their temperaments come, at least in part, from their genes. But that doesn't mean their ultimate happiness is predetermined, assures Bob Murray, Ph.D., author of Raising an Optimistic Child: A Proven Plan for Depression-Proofing Young Children—for Life (McGraw-Hill). "There may be a genetic propensity for depression, but our genes are malleable and can be switched on or off depending on the environment," he says. "The research clearly shows that happy, optimistic children are the product of happy, optimistic homes, regardless of genetic makeup."
What can you do to create a home where your child's happiness will flourish? Read on for seven strategies that will strengthen your child's capacity to experience joy.
The surest way to promote your child's lifelong emotional well-being is to help him feel connected—to you, other family members, friends, neighbors, daycare providers, even to pets. "A connected childhood is the key to happiness," says Edward Hallowell, M.D., child psychiatrist and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. Dr. Hallowell points as evidence to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, involving some 90,000 teens, in which "connectedness"—a feeling of being loved, understood, wanted, acknowledged—emerged as by far the biggest protector against emotional distress, suicidal thoughts, and risky behaviors including smoking, drinking, and using drugs.
Fortunately, we can cement our child's primary and most crucial connection—to us—simply by offering what Dr. Hallowell calls the crazy love that never quits. "It sounds hokey, and it's often dismissed as a given," he says, "but if a child has just one person who loves him unconditionally, that's the closest thing he'll ever get to an inoculation against misery." It's not enough, however, simply to possess that deep love; your child must feel it, too, Dr. Hallowell says. Hold your baby as much as possible; respond with empathy to his cries; read aloud to him; eat, snuggle, and laugh together.
Meanwhile, provide chances for him to form loving connections with others as well, advises sociologist Christine Carter, Ph.D., executive director of the University of California at Berkeley's Greater Good Science Center, an organization devoted to the scientific understanding of happiness. "We know from 50 years of research that social connections are an incredibly important, if not the most important, contributor to happiness," Carter says. "And it's not just the quality, but also the quantity of the bonds: the more connections your child makes, the better."
It sounds counterintuitive, but the best thing you can do for your child's long-term happiness may be to stop trying to keep her happy in the short-term. "If we put our kids in a bubble and grant them their every wish and desire, that is what they grow to expect, but the real world doesn't work that way," says Bonnie Harris, founder of Core Parenting, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons: And What You Can Do About It.
To keep from overcoddling, recognize that you are not responsible for your child's happiness, Harris urges. Parents who feel responsible for their kids' emotions have great difficulty allowing them to experience anger, sadness, or frustration. We swoop in immediately to give them whatever we think will bring a smile or to solve whatever is causing them distress. Unfortunately, Harris warns, children who never learn to deal with negative emotions are in danger of being crushed by them as adolescents and adults.
Once you accept that you can't make your child feel happiness (or any other emotion for that matter), you'll be less inclined to try to "fix" her feelings—and more likely to step back and allow her to develop the coping skills and resilience she'll need to bounce back from life's inevitable setbacks.
While we can't control our children's happiness, we are responsible for our own. And because children absorb everything from us, our moods matter. Happy parents are likely to have happy kids, while children of depressed parents suffer twice the average rate of depression, Murray observes. Consequently, one of the best things you can do for your child's emotional well-being is to attend to yours: carve out time for rest, relaxation, and, perhaps most important, romance. Nurture your relationship with your spouse. "If parents have a really good, committed relationship," Murray says, "the child's happiness often naturally follows."
Not surprisingly, studies consistently link self-esteem and happiness. Our children can't have one without the other. It's something we know intuitively, and it turns many of us into overzealous cheerleaders. Our child scribbles and we declare him a Picasso, scores a goal and he's the next Beckham, adds 1 and 2 and he's ready for Mensa. But this sort of "achievement praise" can backfire.
"The danger, if this is the only kind of praise a child hears, is that he'll think he needs to achieve to win your approval," Murray explains. "He'll become afraid that if he doesn't succeed, he'll fall off the pedestal and his parents won't love him anymore." Praising specific traits—intelligence, prettiness, athleticism—can also undermine children's confidence later, if they grow up believing they're valued for something that's out of their control and potentially fleeting.
"If you praise your child primarily for being pretty, for example, what happens when she grows old and loses that beauty?" Murray asks. "How many facials will it take for her to feel worthwhile?" Interestingly, Murray adds, research shows that kids who are praised mainly for being bright become intellectually timid, fearing that they will be seen as less smart—and less valuable—if they fail.
The antidote, however, is not to withhold praise but rather to redirect it, Murray says. "Praise the effort rather than the result," he advises. "Praise the creativity, the hard work, the persistence, that goes into achieving, more than the achievement itself."
The goal, Carter agrees, is to foster in your child a "growth mind-set," or the belief that people achieve through hard work and practice, more than through innate talent. "Kids who are labeled as having innate talent feel they need to prove themselves again and again," Carter observes. "Whereas studies show kids with a growth mind-set do better and enjoy their activities more because they aren't worried what people will think of them if they fail." Fortunately, Carter says, research has shown it's possible to instill a growth mind-set in children with one simple line of praise: you did really well on X; you must have worked really hard. "So we're not saying don't praise," Carter stresses. "Just focus on something within your child's control."
Of course, if you really want to bolster your child's self-esteem, focus less on compliments and more on providing her with ample opportunities to learn new skills. Mastery, not praise, is the real self-esteem builder, Dr. Hallowell says. Fortunately, when it comes to the under-4 crowd, nearly everything they do is a chance to attain mastery—because it's all new to them: learning to crawl, walk, feed and dress themselves, use the potty, and ride a tricycle. Our challenge is to stand back and let our children do for themselves what they're capable of. "The great mistake good parents make is doing too much for their children," Dr. Hallowell says.
While it can be difficult to watch our kids struggle, they'll never know the thrill of mastery unless we allow them to risk failure. Few skills are perfected on a first try. It's through practice that children achieve mastery. And through repeated experiences of mastery, they develop the can-do attitude that lets them approach future challenges with the zest and optimism that are central to a happy life.
"Happiness depends largely on the feeling that what we do matters and is valued by others," Murray observes. "Without that feeling, we fear we might be excluded from the group. And research shows that what human beings fear more than anything is exclusion."
In other words, people have an innate need to be needed. So the more you can convey to your child that he is making a unique contribution to the family, from an early age, the greater his sense of self-worth and his ultimate happiness. Kids as young as 3 can play meaningful family roles, Murray says, whether it's refilling the cat's dry-food bowl or setting out the napkins at dinnertime. If possible, assign a role that plays to your child's strengths. For example, if your little one loves to organize things, give him the job of sorting the forks and spoons. If he's particularly nurturing, perhaps his role could be entertaining his baby sister while you get dinner on the table. So long as you acknowledge that he's making a contribution to the family, it will heighten your child's sense of connection and confidence, two prerequisites for lasting happiness.
Finally, happiness studies consistently link feelings of gratitude to emotional well-being. Research at the University of California, Davis, and elsewhere has shown that people who keep daily or weekly gratitude journals feel more optimistic, make more progress toward goals, and feel better about their lives overall. For a child, keeping a journal may be unrealistic. But one way to foster gratitude in children is to ask that each member of the family take time daily—before or during a meal, for example—to name aloud something he or she is thankful for, Carter suggests. The important thing is to make it a regular ritual. "This is one habit that will foster all kinds of positive emotions," she assures, "and it really can lead to lasting happiness."