Raising Children Who Practice Happiness
There is nothing that brings more joy into our lives as parents than seeing our children happy. We love to watch their faces on Christmas morning, at their first introduction to a new puppy, or when they make the winning shot. Ask parents what they most want for their children and they will probably say “to be happy.”
But there is a big difference between making our children happy in the moment, and giving them the skills they need for a lifetime of happiness. The first is as simple as buying them an ice cream cone, the second as challenging as instilling virtues such as gratitude and self-discipline. The bumpy road to adult happiness for our children is paved with intentional, consistent, positive parenting.
A Good and Honorable Goal
For some, the goal of raising children to be happy adults may appear shallow. Pursuing happiness can seem hedonistic, or viewed as settling for less than the more serious goals of financial independence or righting the world’s wrongs. But the world’s religions understand the importance of happiness. The Bible says “A happy heart doeth good like a medicine,” while the Dalai Lama has written an entire book on happiness.
As parents we can get stuck in the notion that our children will attain happiness through external success: good grades lead to good schools, which lead to good careers, which lead to success, which leads, of course, to happiness. But success is not a given for happiness—a dose of morning TV will make that clear.
“What parents don’t always realize is that happiness precedes success,” said Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. “Happiness is a tremendous advantage in a world that emphasizes performance. On average, happy people are more successful than unhappy people at both work and love.” Carter, who is a sociologist and happiness expert at UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, adds that happy people “get better performance reviews, have more prestigious jobs, and earn higher salaries. They are more likely to get married, and once married, they are more satisfied with their marriage.” She says that studies show that happy people also tend to be healthier and live longer.
Happiness is not Immediate Gratification
But what is happiness? Let’s face it, it is pretty easy to make our children happy. All we have to do is give them what they want. The screaming child at the grocery store is made immediately happy when given a candy bar. The teenager can go from morose to ecstatic when the smashed up car is replaced with a shiny new one.
It is a great temptation to use our power as parents to change the atmosphere in the home by giving our children what they want, when they want it. Ironically, however, bringing short-term happiness to our children leads to long-term unhappiness. The indulged child is not a happy child.
Carter draws a distinction between pleasure and happiness. “Pleasure is more about gratification. Pleasure-seeking won’t provide lasting happiness, and we can actually end up at a lower point than where we started.” Any shopping addict or overeater can attest to that. “While we get a temporary pleasure boost from something like shopping,” Carter said, “we need more and more pleasure to get that same feeling. It can become a hedonic treadmill.”
This is where the hard parenting part comes in because, truth is, allowing our children to experience negative feelings will ultimately help them achieve genuine, long term happiness.
Authoritative Parenting Leads to Happier Children
Self-discipline is one of the cornerstones of happiness as an adult. “We have to discipline our kids so that our kids eventually learn to discipline themselves,” Carter said. “Kids need parents to set limits, but in a positive way. When parents are firm and kind, when they are involved without being invasive, researchers call this ‘authoritative parenting.’”
To be an authoritative parent, Carter offers the following advice:
Don’t be a pushover. Say no, even if it is difficult for you. It is hard to see our kids unhappy, and it is difficult to endure the whining and tantruming that limit setting may provoke, but few things are more important for their healthy development and well being. We can’t expect kids to develop their own self-control if we don’t first establish boundaries for them.
Be involved. A big part of authoritative parenting is follow-through, supervision and just generally being there. It isn’t enough to make rules; we also need to enforce them.
Don’t be controlling, even in a well-meaning way. Not being psychologically controlling means allowing kids to make their own mistakes so they can learn that they are capable of picking themselves up after falling. It also means encouraging kids to express their own individuality.
Exude warmth. Affectionate and attentive parenting creates secure attachments. Ironically, love and warmth will make your child more disciplined.
Don’t react to misbehavior; preempt it. Don’t wait for your child to misbehave and then correct it. Give them something to do so that they don’t get in trouble in the first place.
Carter also advises the following strategies for teaching self-discipline:
Play games. Initiate games where kids have to regulate their behavior such as Simon Says and Freeze Tag. Also engage them in activities that require them to follow directions such as cooking and building things. Martial arts, dance, music and storytelling are all fun activities that require following directions and sustained attention.
Encourage self-talk. Children learn self-control by talking to themselves in order to guide their own behavior. Encourage kids to listen to that ‘little voice in their head’ [their conscience] that can help them resist negative impulses.
Reduce stress. Stress makes us more impulsive and less able to meet our goals.
Turn off the T.V. Television takes up time that could be spent playing. It doesn’t promote things kids need for healthy development when many alternatives, such as playing outside, do.
Have realistic expectations. Keep in mind that it is virtually impossible for kids younger than age 4 to delay gratification on their own. Self-regulation develops between the ages of 6 and 12.
All happiness studies show that having an attitude of gratitude is one of the most important qualities of a happy life.
“In our studies, we often have people keep gratitude journals for just three weeks, and yet the results have been overwhelming,” said Robert Emmons, Ph.D., professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, and author of Thanks! How the New Science of Gratitude Can Make You Happier. “We’ve studied more than one thousand people, from ages 8 to 80, and found that people who practice gratitude consistently report a host of benefits.”
Those benefits include everything from stronger immune systems and lower blood pressure, to greater optimism, greater happiness and more compassion. Emmons’ research shows that gratitude transforms people’s lives by blocking toxic emotions such as envy, resentment, anger and regret that can destroy our happiness. It also helps people celebrate the present and gives people a higher sense of self-worth.
“Once you realize that other people have seen the value in you, you can transform the way you see yourself,” Emmons said.
In her book, The Big Book of Parenting Solutions, Michelle Borba, Ed.D., offers the following suggestions for fostering gratitude in children:
Happy Parents, Happy Children
Finally, Carter said that the most important factor in raising happy children is for parents to be happy. “Your happiness really matters to the happiness of your child,” Carter said. “Happiness gives us the resources to be better parents.”
However, just like with children, self-discipline is crucial.
“It is one thing to know how to cultivate happiness in our family, it is another to have the discipline to do it. We must model the skills it takes to be happy. When we exercise, make time to visit friends, get enough sleep—kids see how happiness works,” Carter said. “Also,” she added, “remember that emotions are incredibly contagious.”
Therefore if parents are struggling with depression or anxiety, they need to get help for the child’s sake, if not for their own.
Happiness is no accident. It doesn’t come by luck. According to Carter the behaviors that foster happiness, such as gratitude and self-discipline, are learned skills that must be practiced “like kicking a soccer ball or speaking French.”
But the work is well worth the outcome. “Our world is a pretty stressful place,” Carter said. “Kids need the strength of happiness and gratitude to cultivate hope for the future.”
What better gift to give our children this year than to begin the practices that will increase their happiness for a lifetime.
For more ideas on raising happy children check out the Christine Carter’s “raising Happiness” website and online parenting classes at www.raisinghappiness.com.
PHOTO CREDIT: Jenny Connell www.jennywhitephotography.com