Authentic happiness. What is that, even?
As a family that lives with the beast that is depression (I hate that guy), I often wonder how we can manage the dark dips together and still raise happy children — children who hopefully aren’t too affected by what they see, what they soak up and what they, too, have to migrate through. Children are incredibly resilient, it’s true. And by all honest counts, we have a happy home life. We’re doing it. It’s happening. Our kids are happy — and not in the spoiled, let’s live in a bubble sort of way.
Yet, when depression rears its ugly head to engage in some twisted tango, hiding it is pointless. Shaming. It’s not how we choose to live or raise our kids. We want them to know about mental illness, to not hold embarrassment or shame about it like those of older generations. But I believe that kids don’t need to know everything. They don’t need to to hold the key to my locked closet of skeletons.
Mental health and mental illness, however, are always going to be a part of our lives and, at times, a rather large focus — one that we’ll aim to live through with pride and as much positivity as one can muster when swimming through the thick, sticky mud that is depression. I’ve waded through a lifetime thus far. It’s been a slow, trickling realization that so many people live and suffer through mental illness. It is those who triumph that I learn from — and those who don’t that I speak out for.
As the partner to someone who suffers the most, my experience of depression — and our children’s — is but a natural effect.
And that’s OK.
Because we love hard, we’re smart and we value joy — every single day in our lives. Depression is just that annoying dark passenger along for the ride. Trev and I know a lot about being happy, too. Attaining, nurturing and holding happiness in our everyday lives is one of the most important things we can teach our children. In raising our toddlers, these are some of the everyday things we have going on in the happiness department.
Happy Kids 1 of 12
On nurturing the right stuff...
Be Kind 2 of 12
We know that doing nice things for people makes us feel good in return -- at least most (some?) of us do. What you might not know is that treating people with kindness, and having a kind demeanor in general, is happiness-inducing... because SCIENCE. It's true. Every time we do something selfless, our brains produce serotonin, a hormone that eases tension and lifts your spirits. (It's depression's nemesis when released.) In teaching our kids about the science of being kind and learning how to treat people with love, respect and compassion, we will hopefully set them off into the future with the necessary skills to build the right kind of solid relationships.
See Problems as Challenges 3 of 12
Ah, the challenging life of a toddler. Everything is hard! Shoelaces, puzzles, reaching the toothbrush, not spilling the milk... everything! If I can help teach my kids to not get frustrated in the moment, to not sweat the small stuff, then we're on to something. Obstacles can -- and should -- be seen as challenges, not problems. This is key to helping them develop their confidence and manage stress in the everyday. How they learn to tackle obstacles and succeed in life, to be humble winners and happy losers when those times come, is an integral part of how they will maintain everyday happiness.
Express Gratitude for What They Have 4 of 12
This one is hard with toddlers. They want instant gratification. It is a sure sign that Abby and Wyndham need less, less, less when they are rangy and bored and asking for something more, more, more. Less screen time, less toys, less distractions and options. I find that when I need to reel things in with my kids, they are often overstimulated and it's up to me to show them how to take pleasure in a book and some quiet time, focusing on just one activity. It's important for them to take stock of what they already have instead of wanting more. We've even made a habit out of each of us taking turns around the dinner table, sharing our daily highs and lows and speaking to what we were thankful for that day. The things we speak about are meaningful and don't revolve around materialistic rewards and satisfaction. Instead we try to focus intrinsically. This tradition was passed on to our family from a good friend of mine and her family. We often gather around a table to eat good food and to practice and display our gratitude together.
Dream Big, Travel Far 5 of 12
I think that true happiness requires both a gratitude for the present but also a deep-seated aspiration for the future. No one can dream big like a child, and it's up to me to nurture that. May it never fade. Travel influences us in such vast and profound ways, and I want that for my kids. I want international travel to be a part of how my kids dream, just as much as achieving academic success or job security. As of now, I'm being interactive and hands-on with my kids every day, trying to influence how they dream big in a toddler way, from how they create art to imagining what games we can play together, the places we can visit and the adventures we can have. Right now, I'm busy making magic.
Make Friends Sparingly 6 of 12
Popularity isn't all it's cracked up to be and I plan on continually teaching my kids the importance of choosing their friends wisely. I want them to surround themselves with optimistic people, but I also want them to create friendships with people who are going to be honest with them, even if that means leaving the fairy dust by the wayside. I can count on one hand the number of true friends that I have -- and that is plenty for me. I hope that it will be plenty for them, too. There will be times in their lives when they have a friend who needs help and that need can cross into dangerous territory. Lots of fine lines will get crossed, and they will likely put themselves on the line for someone they love, which is a good thing. But, at the same time, I want them to try to create friendships with people who won't suck them dry, who won't manipulate them and avoid those who don't have their best interests at heart, ya know? These messages, they all start now, beginning in our home, even in how their own friendship as young siblings develops.
Eat Well and Exercise 7 of 12
Food is medicine, yes, yes, YES. We're not perfect at it, but we're definitely passionate about it and true believers in the power that good food has over our bodies and minds, how we feel, how we act and how we achieve. We put just as much of a vested interest into what goes into our mouths as we do -- and perhaps moreso than -- the upkeep of our car, our home and our careers. I really hope these beliefs and our passion for growing food and respecting food and how it directly affects our happiness gets passed on down to my kids. So far, so good. They can't really escape it at this point anyway. It's pretty difficult to be happy and feel good about yourself if all you eat is pre-fab crap.
It's something we talk a lot about at home and I'm feeling pretty good about this one. Every meal is a labor of love, every seed planted an understanding and respect for agriculture. The more time I spend learning about the medicinal qualities that food holds, the more we win at living with depression in this family. One of our favorite books at the moment is, Tyler Makes Spaghetti! by Tyler Florence and Craig Frazier. One quote in particular had me at hello, "Being a good cook is kind of like being a super-hero. Good food can save the day!" I've got to have a few things I feel solid about in my parenting, right?
Be Honest 8 of 12
Lying stresses anybody out, and if they say it doesn't, well, yep -- you guessed it -- they're lying. Nobody likes a liar. If a person has become an adult who doesn't see a problem with lying, something was probably missing at home when they were a child. The early years are the most formative. We know this. This is the time where a human learns such basic things as the importance of honesty. This is where they develop a natural desire to be honest -- nobody is born wanting to be a liar. Some of us gravitate toward the shady gray areas of fibbing and embellishing and the toddler stage is where children begin to test those areas. Our house is an honest one, even if someone doesn't want to hear it. I only hope that all of this mirroring resonates with them and really affects and influences how their characters and values develop. Please, let me not be screwing this one up too much!
Don’t Compare Yourself to Others 9 of 12
"Comparison is the thief of joy." That's one of my favorite quotes by Theodore Roosevelt. The meaning is pretty obvious. Comparing your work, your life or whatever else will only serve to make you unhappy. SO TRUE. I embrace (and always will) the unique individuality of each of my children and hope that they can do the same for themselves and in how they think of others. Right now, my kids could be comparing the scooter they have to Billy Bob's down the street, or that Mildred from that one birthday party on the weekend has more dollies. Perhaps, as they get a bit older, they'll start to notice things that other children can do better than them. Throughout all of this, it is up to me (and their dad) to show them how to appreciate what they already have and how to recognize all of the things they excel at. I believe that if I do enough of this -- starting right now and until always -- that my kids will one day grow up to not constantly judge themselves and compare themselves to other people's successes and all of their own failures. Good gourd, someone tell me it will work!
Make Art and Write 10 of 12
Access to the arts is intrinsic to living a high-quality life. That's what "they" say, right? I'm on board with the "they" for this one. Perhaps my toddlers are a bit young for journaling, but that doesn't mean I'm not already teaching them the beauty of the written word, in storytelling, and how to appreciate other people's stories and their own. Making art with toddlers is EASY if one lets go of the fear of the mess it makes.
I read an article yesterday that really resonated with my own beliefs in how positive, creative, imaginative play strongly affects how a child develops, learns and experiences joy. We all know the actor/director Matt Damon, right? Well his mom, Nancy Carlsson-Paige, is a professor emerita of early childhood education at Lesley University in Massachusetts. She is also the author of several books, the most recent being, Taking Back Childhood: A Proven Roadmap for Raising Confident, Creative, Compassionate Kids. I stumbled across an article she wrote for CNN and this quote in particular really made sense to me: "When kids are confused or scared or they don't understand things, they work it out in their play. Using their imagination, they rework things until they feel some sense of mastery. This is kids' ongoing way of coping with life and it is crucial for building inner resilience and security."
Make Happiness a Choice 11 of 12
Have fun! Right now, this is mostly easy, since Abby and Wyndham are toddlers and everything they do is usually immersed in play. The more I joke and engage in pretend play with my kids, the more their behavior improves. Through such a seemingly simple act as having fun with my kids, I'm giving them the tools to think creatively, act quickly, think on their toes and manage stress.
Exhibit All of the Above 12 of 12
We can manifest the altruistic life we want and we are not defined by depression. Happiness is naturally contagious, right? (Except in those overly-bubbly, annoying/obnoxious cases.) When I carve out time for rest, relaxation and, perhaps most important, romance... things are good. Mighty fine, in fact. When I nurture my relationship with Trevor, Abby and Wyndham see that. They live by it and know it. We stretch our minds and hearts as far as they will go. This life we live together is about the art of survival AND the art of happiness, and for us, generosity and happiness begins at home.
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Selena is a crafty, culinary mom. Regular writer here and on Disney Baby. Part-time mischief maker, all the time geek. Elsewhere on the Internets… via her humble beginnings, mastering in general mayhem: le petit rêve