For Father’s Day, we wanted to share this article on raising happy children.
Written by Sean Platt, father of two and author, this post provides information that anyone involved in the life of a child can use: parents, guardians, grandparents, teachers, coaches … you. He shares heart opening insights on how to be present for that child in ways that open up beautiful windows of opportunity for genuine and long lasting happiness.
7 Secrets To Raising A Happy Child
Nature and nurture are in a neverending battle to claim your child’s disposition.
It’s true, the apple rarely tumbles too far from the tree. Yet, there are countless things you can do to safeguard the quickly fading springtime of your child’s youth, limit their exposure to the more damaging elements our world will surely see fit to introduce soon enough, and do the many small things that coalesce to help you raise a happy, healthy child.
As a parent, you’re in constant search of what’s best for your child. Yet sometimes, even with your best intentions, it’s all too easy to occasionally overlook the simplicities of life which slowly shape the nature of a happy child.
Establishing healthy boundaries, offering your child plenty of choices, allowing them to make mistakes beneath the benefit of a safety net, encouraging their always expanding autonomy, and being a good person your child can be proud of – these are the hallmarks of a happy childhood.
These responsibilities will fall primarily on your shoulders, but in an ideal world they are further nurtured by family, teachers and mentors. But not every world is ideal. Your job is to tend to everything within your borders to the best of your ability.
Forms of happiness such as gratitude, appreciation, pride, optimism, satisfaction, competency, wonder and passion all naturally sprout from positive daily routines and family rituals. That natural happiness is amplified when parents serve as positive role models in their actions, words and thoughts.
Best of all, that type of organic joy is the type that sticks – meaning as your child moves from toddler to adolescence and onward, their core contentment will remain strong. And that’s an emotional armor that will help them resist much of what the outside world might otherwise bleach away.
You might not be able to change the branches on your family tree, but you control the nutrients in your child’s soil, the sunlight in their sky, and ultimately, the smile that widens their face.
In addition to the obvious essentials such as making sure your child is consuming the right nutrients, staying hydrated, and getting the needed sleep and exercise required for a quickly growing body, here are seven “secrets” that can help you raise a happier child.
1. If You Want Your Child To Be Happy, Be Happy Yourself
Your child wants to feel important in your world, not like an afterthought or accessory.
Let them know you’re excited to see and be with them when they enter the room. Let them see a genuine light dance in your eyes when their gaze drifts into yours.
Acknowledge their presence with an honest smile and warmth in your greeting. Say their name out loud. Be affectionate and sincere. Children love to hear the sound of their name, but more than that, they long to feel validation from their loved ones.
Think about it from your adult perspective – how would you feel if the face of the person you loved most lit like a holiday parade whenever you entered the room?
Of course, you’re human. It isn’t natural to buzz about each second of every day, but you can probably show your child genuine enthusiasm more often than you do. Your child loves you MOST. Imagine the returns after a childhood invested with such affection.
Parenting is rarely easy, but with persistent protection, unceasing support, continuous guidance and a loving parenting style, the chances of fostering a healthy relationship with an authentically happy child can only grow greater.
Be optimistic, so your child can witness the positive power of hope first hand. Through daily words and actions you will gradually pass forward priceless principles of gratitude and forgiveness, while fostering a clear self-confidence and awareness of the world around them. The sort of understanding that can only be shaped through frequent action and positive reinforcement.
Every family is different, and you will have to navigate yours through the realities of your everyday life. In ours, we promote a playful approach to life that encourages curiosity and emotional intelligence.
We strive to have fun as parents and model a consistent desire to live, learn and grow. We are by no means right all the time, and are always willing to take full ownership when we’re wrong, which is something our children greatly appreciate.
We don’t take ourselves too seriously. Above all, we are excited by our children, who they are right now and who they are blossoming into. And we do everything we can to make sure they know it.
By being happy ourselves and appreciating the excitement and wonder of the world, it’s natural for our children to want to follow our lead. That’s KEY.
When your child wants to do something, everything else is easy.
If you’re not excited by life, chances are your child won’t be either. The human mind is malleable, especially when young, and passion for positive thinking is contagious. It’s unreasonable to believe you will find joy in every waking hour, but you can remain aware of your engagement with the world around you enough to make it easy for your children to see your natural delight.
Your child is a “work in progress.” You can move them closer to their ideal with your kind words, cheerful disposition and regular smiles. Your child will be a part of your life forever. Require a higher standard from yourself. Stay strong, positive, consistent and vibrant. Lead by example and you will amplify your ability to model excitement for the littler version of you who is observing much of what you do.
Invest your time, energy and enthusiasm into the relationship you have with your child or children, and nurture natural states of empathy, compassion, along with a zest for life and the sort of steady disposition that can lead to a healthy balance for the whole family.
2. The Cure For Boredom Is Curiosity
Teach your child that it’s okay to be bored.
The words I’m bored falling from your child’s mouth are probably a little like fingernails on a chalkboard; two words that can instantly make most parents cringe.
Yet, boredom is often a facade. Your child is actually feeling frustrated, fueled by his or her inability to structure their time with independent activities.
Is your child “bored” because they’ve been asked to do something they don’t want to do? This happens often, and with most children, but that doesn’t make it okay. Life isn’t perfect and it’s unhealthy for your child to expect that they will love every task at hand.
If your child’s boredom is because they’re not being entertained, specifically by you, that’s an even larger problem, though it’s also easier to fix, so long as you’re willing to do a little work.
You’re not supposed to entertain your child every waking hour. This unreasonable yet pervasive instinct is often fueled by guilt from working parents who aren’t nearly as present as they would like to be, or stay-at-home moms and dads who feel like it’s their “job” to be the in-house entertainer, along with chauffeur, cook and maid.
This is impossible to sustain; it is a hamster wheel that keeps well-meaning parents running in needless circles. And because you don’t possess the time or energy required to engage with your child every moment, it becomes easy to allow that glowing blue babysitter in the living room to do the heavy lifting for you.
Unfortunately, this is one of the worst things you could possibly do.
We’re not in any way condemning television. We have our favorite shows, as do our children. But we strive for moderation. Become reliant on television, or any other form of autopilot attention, and you succeed in limiting your child’s best possible personal development. Modern society is built around instants: instant food, instant entertainment, instant gratification. Television, technology and video games are all contributing factors, of course, but parents are ultimately responsible for the habits and lifestyles modeled for their children.
Children demand constant attention. And many parents indulge their whims, even if it means surrendering endless hours to mind-numbing, development-destroying television.
Boredom is a part of life, and much of the difference between creative entrepreneurs shaping the world and workers who remain trapped in rote activity is how each group responds to boredom.
Help your child not only deal with their boredom, but persevere beneath its sky of latent possibility. Learning to leap life’s hurdles with a smile is a lesson best learned early.
Create a “go to” list of activities for those times when your child is circling tedium. When he or she knows how to beat boredom by themselves, without whining cries of, “I’m bored!” they will feel empowered, and that will promote the independence needed to breed genuine confidence and autonomy.
In our family we make up lists of personal activities for those times when we’re bored. The lists between our children are different, but each child has a personal list of interests that won’t disturb the other.
Refining this list as a family helps us avoid the omnipresent temptation of overprotecting our children, and encourages us to structure their free time with intelligent activities, inspiration and emotional support instead.
Our children’s innate ability to entertain themselves was nurtured early in their life. My wife Cindy’s decades in the classroom helped us see the need early, but it’s a responsibility we placed in their hands as soon as they were old enough to wrap their fingers around the torch.
Children have vivid imaginations that flourish with nurturing. But it’s your job to lead them toward the go-to lists that will give them quality quiet to nurture their natural inventiveness. Without ample opportunity to coax their creativity, it will only wither on the vine.
Allow your child idle minutes to develop their creativity with hands-on activities that will stimulate their thought and imagination. Listen to their needs then encourage their growth by suggesting resources that will help them crack the nut on their own without pulling the lever for them.
You can also plan ahead and prevent further problems my making a family agenda for afternoons or weekends so your children have simple adventures to look forward to, along with moments of free time when they can choose from a personal suite of hobbies and activities that aren’t dependent on passive inactivity.
It is always amazing when we look at our children and find a few sheets of paper and an open box of crayons promoting more imagination and engagement than a week’s worth of battery operated fun.
Model simplicity and teach your children that life’s greatest joys were possible for thousands of years before their favorite shows or video games.That simple skill will serve them, and you, forever.
3. Media Is Chewing Gum For Your Child’s Mind
Limit your child’s media. Related, but not limited to number two.
Curbing your child’s exposure to media isn’t only a positive move to promote creativity, it’s also an excellent means to broaden their attention span and groom their ability to stay calm. Your child will have plenty of exposure to media that’s beyond your control, and probably sooner than you’d like. During those scant years when you are still the designer of their decisions, you can ensure they’re learning to live free from the broadcast overexposure that becomes all too easy to rely on.
Yes, it is difficult, and seems to grow more so by the year. Yet we owe it to the next generation to choose the right road over the easy one. The older your children grow, the more they’ll want to see. This is okay, wonderful even, as long as you don’t do it on autopilot.
Media provides children with an opportunity to see life from different angles. People learn through stories, which is one of the things that gives media its value. But rather than allowing your child to zone out to its hypnotic glow, you can teach him or her to become an active, critical viewer.
By asking questions about what your child sees and hears, you gain an opportunity to discuss the decisions the people or characters are making. A tremendous advantage of the digital age is the ability to pause what we’re watching. Don’t be afraid to season your media with intelligent “hows” and “whys.”
Why do you think the writer had the character say that? Did you notice how the music changed when there was conflict? What would you have done if you were in the same situation? Why?
Taking time to discuss what you’re watching will help you understand exactly what and how much your child is internalizing as well as how they’re seeing the world around them.
Context is key to understanding. Media offers role models, and positive and negative life lessons can be pulled from any developmentally appropriate programming.
Discovering the author’s message, or discovering why your child thinks a character is appealing, will give you keen insight into their mind. Conversation can help confirm whether or not your child understands character traits such as courage and dishonesty, or whether they’re mechanically watching without comprehension.
One of the more effective strategies we’ve implemented with our own children is encouraging them to choose their media in advance. That way they’re always watching with purpose rather than randomly flipping through channels. Explain anything they don’t understand or that the programs or cartoons they are watching glossed over. If your child is curious, they will ask questions. If they can’t trust you for the answers, they will go elsewhere to get them.
Be careful with what you expose them to. Your child can’t “un-see” something once they’ve seen it. And keep in mind, just because something is animated, doesn’t mean it’s developmentally appropriate. Check parent reviews rather than crossing your fingers and hoping there’s nothing too too salty for your junior audience. When we decide what to watch as a family we give our children ownership of their choice and an opportunity to use discretion within the boundaries of our established values. Media can be a reliable source for helping your family balance ethical standards by using the situations presented to discuss character development and individual choice.
How children use media depends a lot on who they are and how much freedom you give them. Being fair and telling the truth are essential traits within a joyful family structure. Setting clear rules about media time, sharing the computer, video game systems and TV will all contribute to a healthy and balanced media life.
In our family, Monday-Thursday are mostly media free. We read, play games and work on our hobbies. Computers are used for e-learning, once homework is finished. Fridays are movie nights, complete with popcorn, movie treats, and a kick-off to another weekend of family fun when free play, video games with a time limit, and pre-recorded programs will be sprinkled through the next two days.
Our children are 7 and 9 and this structure works for now. It may not work for you. It wouldn’t have worked for us a few years back and we’re quite sure it won’t last too much longer. As our son and daughter grow we will evolve their viewing time and structure to meet developmental needs.
The key at any stage is the same: teach your child to use media as a tool that will help them see their world in new and creative ways, not as an invitation to pour an icy glaze over their development. Media offers children access to an unlimited world of possibilities. Maintaining responsible habits which fuel curiosity, imagination and a love for learning requires parental support, guidance and positive modeling.
4. Eye Contact Is The Best Accessory
Simple eye contact is an easy yet powerful way to connect with your child.
Let your child know they are more important than work or household tasks by making and maintaining eye contact. It’s an easy way of acknowledging your child’s presence, validating their company, and modeling polite behavior. Greeting your child with a smile and strong eye contact charges your relationship with confidence, while sending them a positive, energetic feeling. It shows your child you are interested in what he or she is saying, and contributes to a strong rapport that will serve you well when adolescence comes knocking.
Your child doesn’t just need you around, they need to feel your presence, too. Don’t just be there. Play with your child, interact with them, find out what’s most important to them by asking questions and listening to their answers.
Your child needs a part of you every day, with uninterrupted time when your mind isn’t wandering to your email or whatever you left scattered across your desk. There are few things in life more important than consistently connecting with your children. The payoff in natural happiness and confidence is truly priceless.
We juggle a lot, and sometimes our minds are so cluttered that setting a timer is what we need to stay on task with our children. But the payoff is always huge. Even though we leave them wanting more we also leave them with the promise that we’ll be taking another break and giving them our undivided attention soon.
Letting your child know they are important and that you can’t wait to connect with them later is like giving them an insulin shot of happy rather than a feeling of dismissal.
One of the best gifts you can ever give your child is to truly take the time to get to know them. Every day interaction will feed your understanding of who your child is as an individual. We constantly endeavor to connect beyond a shopping list of general observations, digging deeper to discover who they are through daily conversation.
At dinner each night we discuss the best and worst parts of each of our days. And we never accept the answer: “The whole day was great!” We expect details: good and bad, sweet and sour.
Few days are perfect. It’s the wrinkles that will help them iron life’s flaws. Give your child permission to vent, then hold their eyes while they spill their guts. This will give them the confidence to express themselves, a confidence that could buoy them throughout their life.
Being present with your child is a critical ingredient to who they will become through adolescence and beyond. If this isn’t a natural practice for you, make the adjustments as soon as you can. There are few things in life more important than consistently connecting with your children. The payoff in natural happiness and confidence is truly priceless.
5. Teach Your Child The Rules So They Can Learn To Make Exceptions
Let your child make a few rules.
Sometimes, all children want is to feel like they’re in charge for a few minutes. Allowing your child to participate in the rule making process will support moral growth, let them feel as though they have a voice, and foster mutual respect within your family structure. Most of all, letting your child make some of the rules will increase their ownership in the household guidelines, along with their willingness to follow them.
Rules aren’t about compliance, they’re about self-discipline. Appropriate rules and routines will help your family get along, communicate better, and keep peace in the household. It’s important for children to learn expectations and limits, but it is also advantageous to involve them in the exercise. Meaningful discussions will naturally occur as you create your personal family playbook, and those conversations will go a long way toward your child’s emotional growth, while giving them tools to more easily accept the consequences for breaking them.
Power struggles can stem from their loss of control. You can easily curb such scuffles by allowing your child to be part of the engine, rather than something that’s simply flattened by it.
Every family’s rules are different. We focus on safety, daily routines, manners and the ways in which we treat one another. Our standards support our values, maturity levels and our family’s individual needs. Not only has allowing our children to participate in the rule making process helped them be happier with the rules and more willing to follow them, it’s helped them to understand what rules are and why they’re needed.
When our children were younger, rules were simple. Now they are older, and though our rules have evolved, the ideas are the same: crystal clear boundaries, democratically decided, with household chores and responsibilities shared and respected.
Of course we must wade through the occasional conflict or respectfully battle over a rule or two. But that’s okay. Rules change as our children develop and our family evolves. Our daughter is chasing 10 at the time of this writing, a creeping need for privacy has grown extremely important to her. By listening to her needs and making adjustments we helped the whole family understand and accept her need for change.
The ownership and empowerment your child feels when making rules will give them a clear sense of expectations and boundaries, as well as an honest voice in the midst of conflict. There are few better ways to promote autonomy and a sense of moral and psychological equality.
6. Teach Your Child And Teach Your Child’s Child
You are your child’s first teacher.
Children are natural learners. You have a remarkable gift as a parent, being the first to greet your child’s inquisitive nature. Your lessons are music to their ears, especially when they’re young. Yet, even as they get older and start to act as though they don’t care what you’re saying, and don’t want to hear it, they do and will. Just keep saying the same things. Repetition is one of a teacher’s best tools after all.
Never assume all their learning is happening outside the home. “Home schooling” is every parent’s job. Whether your child attends school, or receives all their education at home, it is critical to our collective future that parents fill in the blanks.
There are countless skills not taught in school which play a significant role in your child’s whole self. School is a sanctuary where children have the chance to practice what they learn at home. Everything you do behind your four walls matters.
Reflect on literature you read together so you can help your child make sense of everything from current events to their personal world. Through stories and fluid communication you will have the chance to show your child how we are all intricately connected to other human beings.
Life long lessons such as empathy, compassion, patience and responsibility that happen at home will create a keen awareness in your child that will not only influence who they are, but who they will be, meaning today’s lessons will ripple into future generations. It is your responsibility to lay the foundations that promote moral and emotional growth.
Never forget your child is looking to you for cues to cope with their world. How you tolerate anxiety, anger, sadness, and frustration is as important as making sure he or she knows their math facts.
Children are not raised in tupperware, and when your child finally trades the nest for the real world, miles away from your vigilant eyes, they must have the earned intelligence to be the best they can be.
7. You Are What You Do
Model appropriate behavior.
This is the most important item on this list, by far. Parents play a major role in what and how their children think and behave. From the beginning, your child emulates and admires you.
Children do as they see, not as they’re told.
If you want your child to be mindful of others, be mindful of others yourself. Your child never wants to see you as a hypocrite, and you never want them to see you that way.
Children understand what this word means well before you assign the vocabulary. Be aware of little “white lies,” your language, and how you handle conflict. Teach your child by example: how you tolerate obstacles and the inevitable disappointments of life.
If you can’t figure it out, how can you expect them to?
You are human and you will make mistakes. When parents take ownership, learn from their shortcomings and make better choices, it serves as a powerful example.
Your ability to maintain high standards and consistent moral beliefs will be tested, and your child will be watching closely when it is. By nurturing your own ability to reason and act appropriately, then modeling that behavior in the moment of truth, you will help your child develop their internal compass.
Model how you want your child to behave with intelligent conversations, knowing anecdotes, and appropriate media. Show them how to be real and balance life’s needs and desires against the right decisions.
Model behavior you’re proud of and you’ll be providing your child with tangible examples of a version of them they may one day become.
To genuinely understand and know your child is the greatest gift you could ever receive as a parent. All it takes is a little work.
Cultivate positive emotions, security, and confidence. Practice strong communication, stay active, exercise respect and tolerance, establish clear standards, and create a list of family activities that will help you develop, nurture and engage your interests as a family.
Raising a happy child is hard work, but it is something that can and must be done. Once you focus on the needs of your child and ensure you are doing all you can to meet them, your efforts will be rewarded. You will have a healthy and happy child, fortunate to have been raised in a family where childhood wasn’t permitted to simply fade away.
There is no one more influential to your child than you. Capitalize on this gift as long as you can. Your home is the best playground to practice being good people.
One more thing, and it’s really important.
If you have two parents in the household, you must remain united and speak as one, just like the voice of this book. We’ve written together like we parent, one voice blending into the other with the fluid rhythm of a chord change.
You will probably disagree with your partner. We do. But keep a united front until you can discuss it behind closed doors. Your unity will give your child confidence and a clearer path to follow.
HAPPY FATHER’S DAY FROM SAFBABY
This post was originally published in February 2012.