By Davin O'Dwyer
From the moment they arrive, we start to teach our children the skills we think they’ll need to get by – how to recognize a face, eat with a spoon, walk, talk, tie a shoelace, ride a bike. But what about the most important lesson of all: how to be happy? Research shows that cheerful children perform better in school, enjoy more friends and better health, and get more satisfying jobs when they grow up. So shouldn’t trying to teach our kids how to lead happy lives be at least as important as piano lessons or table manners?
Now, you may wonder if kids are simply born happy or unhappy – consider the couple down the street who had one “easy” bounce-on-anyone’s-knee, take-him-to-a-five-star-restaurant baby, followed by a colicky infant who made trips to the grocery store a living nightmare. There’s no magic formula, but increasingly psychologists are saying that joyful children are made, not born, and that parents can play a crucial role in their child’s outlook on life. “You can do a lot to encourage the components of happiness, such as self-confidence, self-esteem and optimism, by doing things like playing to your children’s strengths and reinforcing their successes,” says Scott Wooding, a family psychologist in Okotoks, Alta. Here, experts and Canadian parents share their tips on making that happen.
Pile on the hugs. And carve out frequent playtime when you can focus your attention entirely on your kid. Make plenty of eye contact and time for one-on-one chats. These little everyday things remind your child that you love him and accept him for who he is, and make it easier for him to interact outside the family, which is a cornerstone of a satisfying life, says Wooding. Sure, there’s time each day to say “I love you,” but consider ordering pizza so you can get down on the floor and play Thomas the Tank Engine or Monopoly – multi-tasking be damned!
Let a little rain fall. “Children must understand that disappointments are part of life and life has unpredictable ups and downs,” says Maggie Mamen, an Ottawa psychologist and author of The Pampered Child Syndrome (Creative Bound Inc.). Dianne Wood agrees. “You can’t and shouldn’t shield your children from unpleasant things,” says the Newmarket, Ont., mother of eight kids aged eight to 23. That extends to the consequences of their actions, too, she says. “If they do something wrong, they must cope with the natural consequences of their error.” Being real about the bumps on the road doesn’t include sharing adult worries with your child, though. She doesn’t need to know you’re worried about losing the house or getting laid off.
See the glass half full. You can help your kids practice optimism by trying to put a positive spin on negative events. When one of Wood’s kids gets a poor mark on a test, for example, she likes to present the problem as a learning experience. “I’ll ask them positive questions like, ‘What can you do to make it go better next time?” she says. Clinical psychologist Bob Murray and psychotherapist Alicia Fortinberry, authors of Raising an Optimistic Child (McGraw-Hill), would approve. “If [a child’s] parents see setbacks as challenges rather than defeats, believe people can change for the better, and eschew blame, [the child] is likely to grow up to be upbeat and optimistic,” they say.
Let her get mad. “Strong emotions – anxiety, depression, anger – exist for a reason,” says Martin Seligman, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist. “They galvanize you into action to change yourself or your world.” So let her be angry with her brother for hogging the computer. And don’t talk her out of it if she’s bummed out about a disappointing track meet. If it really matters to her, she’ll use it to knock a few seconds off her 1,500 metre. “Emotions are the juice of life,” adds California psychologist Rob Goldblatt. “They come as a set and you don’t get to pick the ones you want.” But having unhappy emotions doesn’t have to mean your child’s life is miserable. On the contrary, sad times can make life’s pleasant experiences much sweeter.
Support her passion. Doing things well fosters self-esteem and confidence, says Wooding. So if your daughter is artistic, make sure she has plenty of drawing and painting materials at hand. A child engaged in doing what she loves can quickly forget an upsetting incident in the classroom or a quarrel with her best friend. But watch the superlatives. It’s one thing to make positive comments about a child’s actions – whether it’s a good job tidying her room or a day of dry pants – but to greet every doodle or fingerpainting with “You’re an absolute genius!” is counterproductive. “Reinforce success but don’t offer unrealistic praise,” suggests Wooding. That can set your child up for disappointment when he discovers that, to the rest of the world, his drawing skills and singing voice are only average.
Let him figure it out. When our kids run into problems, it’s best to offer support, but let them think through the situation on their own, says Seligman. “If they get stuck, provide guidance, not answers.” Jennifer Paziuk, an Oakville, Ont., mother of Madison, 11, Natalie, 3, and 23-month-old Mark, encourages her oldest to make her own decisions, such as which homework to tackle first or which friends’ invitations to accept. “I’ll say, ‘I know you can solve this problem,’ and get her to talk about all the options,” says Paziuk.
Play up persistence. Help your child take a realistic view that success is the result of hard work and failures along the way are simply part of the process. Point out how long and hard you had to struggle to learn your new computer program, but that now you’re a whiz, says Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Parenting Books (Wiley) and mom of four kids aged eight to 17.
Make (and sometimes break) the rules. The best approach is to be authoritative, not authoritarian or indulgent, says British psychologist Paul Martin, author of Making Happy People (HarperCollins Canada). Authoritarian parents set so many rules it’s impossible to apply them consistently or for kids to obey them all. The result? Children may worry that their parents’ love is contingent on following a bewildering set of rules. “Authoritative parents love their children unconditionally, keep a close eye on them, set firm boundaries and allow considerable freedom within those boundaries,” says Martin. In your house that may mean you have a zero-tolerance policy on name-calling, says Douglas, but let the kids stay up late or eat more sweets on special occasions.
Cool it on the gifts. The world won’t give him everything he asks for exactly when he wants it, so you shouldn’t either. If your child is always pushing for material things, ask him to tell you about the most fun he ever had, Douglas suggests. “It was probably skateboarding or watching a movie with friends, so remind him that it’s not stuff, but the time we spend with others that matters.” Adds Mamen: “If you want to discourage your child from feeling that happiness lies in acquiring possessions, you must model that yourself.” That’s not always easy, especially if you’re coveting a set of stainless-steel appliances or a fab pair of boots for yourself.
Get ’em to give hugs. When your daughter figures out how to get along with the other kids in the bouncy castle, she’s learning how to form lasting relationships later in life. And when you take her to the neighbourhood soup kitchen – or simply encourage her to hug a friend who just scraped a knee – that teaches her to focus her attention on others, an important part of being a happy person. “Encourage your child to help younger kids at school and to be the friend they’d like to have,” suggests Douglas. As Murray and Fortinberry say in Raising an Optimistic Child, “research shows that a strong set of the right kind of values, such as self-worth, good relationships and a connection to nature, does indeed lead to happiness.”