Here’s a question for you: What do you want most in life for your children? Do you want them to make a lot of money? Become famous? Write the next Great American Novel? Probably not. (Well, sure, maybe … in the abstract.) But in my experience, when parents are asked this question they say simply some version of, “I want them to be happy.”
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a way we could guarantee this in all our kids? Of course, like anything in life, there are no guarantees. But as the mom of five boys, I have found over the years (through a lot of trial and error) that some tactics do work better than others in the quest for happy kids. And now, it looks like I actually have the scientific evidence to back some of them up!
Here are 10 scientifically proven tips to having happier kids:
1. Make sure they have plenty of play time.
Sure, my boys have their sports, homework, and other extracurricular activities. But they are kids, and I try to remember that their job is really to play. With that in mind, I make sure they have time every day, with few exceptions, to get down to the business of PLAY. (Bonus? On nice days, they head outdoors — which means a quiet house for me!)
An article in a 2011 issue of the American Journal of Play details not only how much children’s play time has declined, but also how this lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems with attention and self control.
“Since about 1955 … children’s free play has been continually declining, at least partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities,” says the author Peter Gray, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology (emeritus) at Boston College. Gray defines “free play” as play a child undertakes independently, and which is self-directed, rather than part of some organized activity.
2. Praise their hard work.
All play and no work makes Jack a … wait. That’s not how it goes!
When my boys put effort into a project, I try to remember to praise their work any way I can. I want them to learn that their efforts are appreciated, even when the outcomes aren’t perfect.
“We think our babies are so smart, so amazing, so good,” says Stanford psychology Professor Carol S. Dweck — but please, don’t tell them that. “It’s better to focus on effort and the action your baby is doing, [saying things like,] ‘You worked hard on that’ versus ‘you’re so good at that.'”
3. Instill positive traditions.
4. Let them do their own homework.
I have a friend who always looked over her oldest daughter’s homework and corrected any mistakes, helped her with projects, made sure everything was perfect. She did this out of love … but what she learned is that she was inadvertently telling her daughter that she wasn’t capable of completing these tasks on her own when her daughter hit a level she had to handle herself.
5. Teach them that their “negative” emotions are healthy.
Nobody likes to be angry, or sad, or scared. These feelings … well, they FEEL bad. But they are part of being a human, and learning that they are normal and going to happen is important for kids to understand. One great way to explain this to kids is when you are experiencing some of those emotions yourself, “See? Mom can be nervous about things, too! It’s just part of life!”
“Much of today’s popular advice to parents ignores emotion,” says Dr. John Gottman of the Gottman Institute. “Instead, it relies on child-rearing theories that address children’s misbehavior, but disregards the feelings that underlie that misbehavior. The ultimate goal of raising children should not be simply to have an obedient and compliant child. Most parents hope for much more for their children.”
6. Let them fail (even though it’s hard).
Failure means you are taking chances, and we want our kids to go out there and LIVE life! If they aren’t failing, they aren’t trying new things and figuring out all of the fun things life has to offer. When they are sad that they’ve failed … see #5.
7. Don’t compare them to each other … or to their friends.
It can be tempting to offer up others as “examples.” But I’ve found it’s almost always best to resist that temptation. It’s really hard to get that point across without making them feel like they are pigeonholed. Instead, kids just tend to hear, “Oh, Sam is the one who is good at dunking basketballs, not me.” Or whatever the well-intentioned comparison was.
“It’s natural for parents to compare their kids, to look for a frame of reference about their milestones or their behavior,” says Debbie Glasser, Ph.D., director of Family Support Services at the Mailman Segal Institute for Early Childhood Studies at Nova Southeastern University, in Fort Lauderdale. “But don’t let your child hear you doing it. Kids develop at their own pace and have their own temperament and personality. Comparing your child to someone else implies that you wish yours were different.”
8. Make happy memories.
Seriously, this is a very real goal of mine. I want to MAKE happy memories for my boys. Maybe that means being goofy, doing something unexpected, planning special one-on-one time with them, etc. In the end, a day is a series of memories. Make them happy ones … turns out, it can literally made them better adults.
9. Be a happy parent.
Ah, yes. This one. Often easier said than done. But modeling happiness for your kids is one of the best ways to encourage them to be happy themselves. And it’s hard for kids to be happy when their parents aren’t. So take care of yourself … you know how when you’re on a plane and the flight attendants tell you to put your own oxygen mask on first so that you’re capable to taking care of your children? Same thing applies to happiness.
Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip Cowan, husband-and-wife psychologists at the University of California have concluded that it is possible to predict how well children will do emotionally, socially and academically.
The key? How the parents are doing. That’s true, whether the parents are together or separated, and matters more than the number of hours with their children. Even in cases where mothers truly care about the development of their sons and daughters, says Carolyn Cowan, spending every possible moment with them when they get home from work, “the children do not fare well if the adults aren’t taking care of themselves and their relationships.”
10. Don’t argue or discuss big issues in front of them.
Considering a big move? Having financial issues? Worried about Grandma? Little ears hear more than we realize, and times of concern and uncertainty can make kids feel unstable and worried. So keep those grown-up discussions under wraps, so kids can be kids. So they can spend their childhood being kids.
According to Jennifer Goodwin, a reporter for HealthDay, researchers found in a 2012 study that “not all conflict [is] troublesome to children.”
“If parents refrained from harshly criticizing one other, stonewalling one another or being violent with one another, and instead managed to work out their problems in a constructive way,” Goodwin writes, “children weren’t terribly bothered by the conflicts.”
In fact, study authors found that “the key to keeping kids well-adjusted isn’t having a perfect, conflict-free marriage … It’s in being able to control emotions enough to fight fair, and resolve conflicts in a way that doesn’t threaten the stability of the family, they explained.”
This parenting gig? It’s hard. Nobody expects you to be perfect (and if they DO, they need to take a look in the mirror) … we all make mistakes. But interjecting some nice cold, hard science into the mix is a nice way to feel good about the job you’re doing.