If you’re reading this it’s because you want what all good parents want: children to grow up as happy, successful adults. But how do you go about that? Scientific research shows there are actually a few keys to raising happy kids:
1) Give crazy love.
“It’s not possible to spoil a child with love,” writes Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D., in the book, The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting (Simon and Schuster; 2005). Steinberg’s work is based on some 75 years of social science research. “What we often think of as the product of spoiling a child is never the result of showing a child too much love,” he says. “It’s usually the consequence of giving a child things in place of love — things like leniency, lowered expectations or material possessions.”
Hold your baby as much as possible; respond with empathy to his cries; read aloud to him. As he grows snuggle, hug, laugh and tell him you love him. Giving your child love that never quits is an inoculation against misery.
2) Don’t hit him.
Steinberg says research shows that children who are spanked, hit or slapped will be more prone to fighting with others. “They’re more likely to be bullies and more likely to use aggression to solve disputes with others,” he says. When needing to discipline your child, instead of spanking or yelling harshly, stay calm and use time out for younger children. If you feel your child’s too old for time out, then removing privileges works well. Avoid aggression as best you can, aim for consistency and keep your word.
3) Get him connected.
Emotionally healthy children come from homes where the family is connected to the community, Steinberg says. Kids being connected to you, to relatives, to friends and neighbors, to a church, even to pets is everything. “A connected childhood is the key to happiness,” Steinberg says. In a National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health involving nearly 90,000 teens, the feeling of being loved, understood and wanted was the biggest protector against emotional distress.
Give your children chances to connect with others. Social connections are an incredibly important — if not most important — contributor to happiness; the more connections your child makes, the better, Steinberg says.
4) Know your child.
Parenting’s not a one-size-fits-all endeavor, experts say. If you tailor your parenting style to your child’s personality, he’ll have less anxiety and depression than his peers says a 2011 study in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Some kids, especially those who are very shy or who have trouble managing their emotions, may need extra help from Mom and Dad.
Happy kids are often those who have mastered some kind of skill, Steinberg says. So, if your toddler wants to throw a ball to you, keep practicing from time to time so he can experience the joy of succeeding due to his efforts. As your child gets bigger, follow his lead toward things that interest him and make sure it’s HIS lead and not YOUR choice. Make sure your child is practicing something he truly enjoys or he won’t be as happy about his success.
5) Time for play.
You may provide plenty of play time for your younger kids, but keep it up as your child gets into his school years, say the authors of The American Journal of Play. So many kids have non-stop structured days with school, sports, homework and activities; it’s smart for parents to remember that kids are kids. We know that lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, attention problems and self-control. Rethink your child’s busy schedule to be sure he has time for himself and free play where he chooses to do what he wants when he wants. And if your sports-playing child doesn’t want to go to practice or isn’t enjoying the activities you’ve signed him up for, take it as a sign that he’s not doing what he really wants to do after all.
6) Lighten up.
Because kids absorb everything from us, our moods matter. Happy parents are likely to have happy kids, while children of depressed parents suffer twice the average rate of depression, Steinberg observes. One of the best things you can do for your child’s emotional well-being is to take care of your own. Joking and being playful with kids helps set them up for social success, according to research. And while you don’t have to be a comedian to raise happy kids, you don’t want your own depression to ruin their chance for happiness: Research suggests that depressed moms struggle with parenting and even show muted responses to their babies’ cries compared to healthy moms. Depressed moms with negative parenting styles may also contribute to their children’s stress. Get help for yourself if you know you are struggling.
7) Have faith.
An extensive 2007 survey by the Associated Press (AP) and MTV found that people ages 13 – 24 who described themselves as very spiritual or religious tended to be happier than those who weren’t. The poll’s mission was to find out what makes young people happy. About 75 percent of those surveyed said God or a higher power had some impact on their happiness. It could be said then that among kids, godliness contributes to happiness. That’s good food for thought for moms and dads. While the AP survey is seven years old today, times may have changed, but the innate needs of our kids sure don’t.