As parents, we want only the best for our children. We do what we can to secure their future by getting first-hand tips on raising them to be smart and successful from the start. But amongst all these, we realise that what matters most is that their lives are filled with happiness and positivity.
But what’s the secret to raising happy children?
Sometimes we may struggle to find a balance between what’s best for our children and what makes them happy – but these two do not need to be mutually exclusive. Tapping on what studies in the areas of psychology, sociology and neuroscience have proven about confidence, gratefulness and optimism, Christine Carter, Ph.D., author and Executive Director of University of California – Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, narrows down the process to 10 happiness-inducing steps in her book, Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents:
1. Make sure you stay happy yourself
Studies have found that parents who are happy are likely to have happy children, although no genetic link has been proven yet. However, extensive research has established a link between mothers who feel depressed and behavioural problems in their children, such as the tendency to act out. Through these observations, it was deduced that in order to raise a happy child, the first thing to do is to stay happy yourself. Without you realising it, your child might be mimicking your actions and response to situations – which is why it is important that we do our best to set a good example for them.
How to do it: Because laughter and happiness are contagious, do make an effort to hang out with family and friends who never fail to bring joy to your life. Neuroscientists believe that hearing another person laugh triggers mirror neurons in a region of the brain that makes you feel as though you are laughing too.
2. Emphasise the importance of building good relationships
We realise the importance of establishing strong ties with the people in our lives, but how do we teach our children how to relate to others? While it goes beyond just saying, “Hey, stop it” when kids do not get along, the starting point for this is actually quite simple.
How to do it: Start by encouraging your child to perform small acts of kindness or to show empathy for those around them. This can involve participating in a charity drive or helping an elderly neighbour with his/her heavy groceries. Research has shown that apart from building the basic essential skills and encouraging your children to be better people, this makes them happier too in the long run.
3. Recognise effort without the need to attain perfection
This serves as a reminder for perfectionist parents to ease their efforts in driving their children’s achievements. When mum and dad place heavy emphasis on success and achievement, their kids are more likely to feel stressed and suffer from psycho-emotional issues such as depression and anxiety as they view their failures as evidence of their incompetence.
How to do it: To keep things in perspective, experts recommend that we shift our praises to the effort our children has put in, rather than focusing on their talents and abilities.
In a series of experiments conducted on fifth graders in the United States, researchers Claudia Mueller and Carol Dweck found that children behaved very differently towards their achievements, depending on the type of praises received. Those who were praised for their intelligence tend to avoid difficult tasks and were more interested to know how they measured up against others. On the other hand, children who were praised for their effort showed opposite trends by preferring challenging tasks from which they could learn from.
“When we praise children for the effort and hard work that leads to achievement, they want to keep engaging in that process. They are not diverted from the task of learning by a concern with how smart they might – or might not – look,” Dweck explains.
4. Teach them to be optimistic
Take heed if you would like to know how to skip dealing with sulky teens later on in life. Studies have found that 10-year-olds who are taught how to think and interpret the world in an optimistic manner are half as prone to depression in their teenage years.
In her book, Carter affirms this by stating how optimism is “so closely related to happiness that the two can practically be equated.” Upon comparing pessimists and optimists, she finds that the latter:
- Are more successful at school, work and athletics
- Tend to be healthier and live longer
- End up more satisfied with their marriages
- Are less likely to deal with depression and anxiety
How to do it: To teach your children to look on the bright side of life, encourage them to count their blessings daily by making a list of three things that went well that day. The three things listed do not need to be life-changing, but they can be things and events that are important to your child (e.g. I made a new friend who loves ice cream as much as I do). Next to each statement, write down the answer to the question, “Why did this happen?”
This technique has been proven to help people – both young and old – feel happier simply because this physical list reminds them of the good things that happened in life and shifts their attention away from the bad ones.
5. Raise them to be emotionally intelligent
Emotional intelligence refers to the ability to recognise our own feelings and that of others, and to know how to regulate and express them appropriately, and use them effectively to guide our thoughts and behaviour in all situations.
Contrary to popular belief, emotional intelligence is a skill, and not a trait that we possess naturally from birth. With this, it is important to teach our children to understand their own emotions and that of others in order to help them relate and get along well with the people in their lives.
How to do it: You can help your child as he/she struggles with anger or frustration by applying these points – Empathise, Label, and Validate.
Start by acknowledging your child’s emotions when he/she is upset, as this shows that you empathise with him/her. Empathising doesn’t mean you agree with what he/she is doing (your child may have to do what you say), but it brings the message across that he/she is entitled to his/her own perspective.
Throughout the process, do ensure that you label your child’s feelings (e.g. “You are angry at me right now, are you disappointed too?). This helps him/her to understand the various types of emotions and the factors that led to them.
Once you have identified your child’s feelings, let him/her know that it is alright to feel that way. Upon validating their feelings, you can lead the way by teaching them to manage and tolerate the situation without the need to act on them and cause distress to others.
Dedicating more time for play and quality family time might just be what you need to see your child’s happiness level soar. More on this and other scientifically-validated tips for raising happy kids on the next page.