You see your child in the playground swinging and laughing happily.
You see your child drawing a picture and smiling as she works.
You see your child peacefully completing a puzzle.
You pick up your children from school, and they run toward you with smiley faces and arms outstretched.
What do the above situations have in common? They all include simple, everyday moments of childhood happiness.
Is there a way we, as parents, do something to guarantee happiness for life for our kids? As a psychologist and mom of four, I know there are no ‘guarantees’ in life, but there are best practices that help achieve our goals. So if one of our goals is having happy children who will grow up to become happy adults, science offers practical tips to help us in this direction.
Here is what you can do to help your child be happy. Try some of these ten scientifically proven tips to have happier kids:
1. Allow Your Child to Play Daily
And when I say play I mean traditional play, as with all sorts of hands-on toys, pretend play, and going outside and having fun playing games such as tag or hide-and-seek, etc. Play is fundamental to a child’s cognitive and emotional development and well-being. Many scientific studies show that free play stimulates the brain to develop stronger connections in the areas of thinking and memory. Children pay more attention to academic tasks and homework when they are given free play time. Study after study shows that when children are deprived of free play time they tend to be more anxious, depressed, worried, and less attentive and able to exert self-control. Free play also boosts confidence and self-esteem.
2. Praise Effort and Hard Work
Somehow we focus more on praising the end product while we neglect to praise a child for their effort and hard work. Sure, the end result counts, but to get there, one needs to be motivated and feel empowered that they can achieve. Recent studies show that a critical parental behavior is when we praise children for their effort and hard work, with specifics such as “you are doing such a good job sitting down and concentrating on your homework,” or “I see you solved correctly six problems, this shows you are working hard and putting forth your best effort.” Make the “practice makes perfect” your motto and encourage your children to try and keep going in the face of difficulty. Standford psychology professor Carol S. Dweck tells us that we need to tell our children “you worked hard on that” instead of “you are so good or so smart.”
3. Make Family Traditions
Family traditions don’t have to be elaborate, time-consuming, expensive projects. Rather, you can invest in what you are already doing as a family, spice it up a little bit, refer to it as ‘our family tradition’ and that’s it! You have one going! Some ideas are family dinner or breakfast where you ‘spice them up’ with colorful napkins, monthly movies with a favorite snack, ornaments on a special holiday or birthday rituals … The key to family rituals is the consistency with which they appear and the feeling of anticipation till they arrive. Family rituals are another way to tell our kids “I love you, you are safe and I want to have a happy environment for you.”
4. Let Your Child Have Responsibilities
First and foremost age-appropriate responsibility for any child is to finish their homework. It may sound intuitive, but it’s tricky, since so many parents feel it’s their responsibility to keep nagging their children to sit down and do their homework, to collect the necessary stuff for them to do it and to sit next to their children correcting, showing, and practically doing the homework for their kids. Of course in the first grades you need to teach your child the basics about completing their homework, but ultimately it’s the child who is responsible for completing it, not you.
5. Allow Your Child to Feel “Big, Negative” Emotions and Teach They Are Healthy
Big feelings like anger, fear, anxiety, disappointment, etc., are part of life. They are normal and nobody is 100% shielded from them. When your child has big feelings like those, don’t try to persuade your child he doesn’t feel them (“Oh honey, you can’t be angry at your sister!”, of course he can be angry at her). The key here is to give your child words to name these feelings, support her to feel them (“I know you are so disappointed we have to go now and you can’t play some more) and then help her manage her behavior so that it doesn’t get out of control.
6. Let Your Child Experience Failure
Overprotecting your children, trying to fix everything for them, making everything a successful experience or dismissing the success of others so that your child doesn’t feel unsuccessful are recipes for disaster! Failure is part of the process of growing up- children ‘fail’ to stand alone the first time they try, they ‘fail’ to walk properly unassisted without falling, yet no parent tries to protect them from these normal situations. The understanding is that when a child develops s/he ‘fails’ at some things so that they can practice and learn. When one fails that means this person tried and took a chance- that’s exactly what we want every child to be able to do. We want kids to try new things, to persist, to think and implement different solutions to problems till they find the correct one. That involves trial and error, but that’s the normal course of development.
7. Compare Your Children to Themselves, not to Their Siblings or to Their Friends
“See, Peter doesn’t cry,” or “Look at your sister, she got an A again,” or “I bet your friend Linda doesn’t speak to her mom the way you speak to me” and on and so forth. Comparison is an easy yet dangerous trap to fall into. Kids don’t learn from the example of other kids- they learn through comparison to where they used to be and where they stand now (in terms of gaining, learning, trying, growing, etc.) from guidance and encouragement along the way. Make sure you praise your child for their effort and hard work, as we said before.
8. Think Forward and Create Happy Memories
What would you like your children to remember from their childhood? How would you prefer to remember this period of your life in 5, 10, 20 years from now? If you would like to have warm, happy memories that evoke positive feelings, then I urge you to start creating happy memories now! That means lots of cuddles, Sunday morning pancakes, having fun together, shared moments of happiness, going on a date with each child separately, from time to time doing the unexpected. Create moments of happiness that in turn make happy memories. Happy kids turn into happy adults.
9. Be Positive
Try to express positive emotions, see the bright side of things and maintain an optimistic outlook. As a positive parent, you commit to manage your own emotions and discipline your child in a loving, respectful way. Positive parents have good communication with their children and their significant other. They know it’s important to listen, to acknowledge the other person’s point of view and be empathic. Positive parents are grateful for the small stuff, yet they know not to sweat the small things.
10. Lead by Example and Be a Happy Parent
I know, it’s tough. But it pays off if you can be happy yourself, as a person and as a parent. Invest in the things that make you happy. Do more of what you love. Take care of yourself and allow for “me time.” It’s not being selfish, it’s being a good parent. Cultivate friendships and support systems with kind, good-hearted, positive people and learn to smile more and let grudges go.