You want to do everything in your power to raise fulfilled, confident, and healthy children and set them up for a happy life. In fact, more than guiding your kids toward a good college or providing them with the finest material comforts, the absolute best thing you can do for them is to instill habits that will cultivate lifelong happiness.
I speak from experience. After dealing with feelings of anxiety and depression throughout my life—despite achieving outward success, wealth, and respect—I suffered a devastating breakdown at the age of thirty-six. Looking back, I can trace many of the factors that led to my breakdown to issues I struggled with as a child, including perfectionism, separation anxiety, and feeling inadequate.
I’m not saying that my own parents, or any parents, “failed” in their duties. The problem lies chiefly with our culture’s priorities and traditions, which are based on the incorrect assumption that things like success, accomplishments, and wealth are the main ingredients of happiness. That’s why I think it’s so important for parents to redefine what’s really important in life and to make sure they’re helping their kids develop healthy habits.
The habits that shape and define our lives are ingrained early on. And since kids begin to form habits in infancy, it’s never too early to begin. Here are eight suggestions on how to raise kids who will grow up to be happy adults.
BE HAPPY YOURSELF
Show your kids what happiness looks like. As a parent, you’ve probably noticed that your kids will follow your lead, even when you don’t think they’ve been paying attention. This phenomenon happens with good things and bad things. You can tell your kids every day how important it is to cut themselves slack when they’ve made a mistake, for example, but if you beat yourself up for days after messing up at work, your instructions won’t stick.
Kids do what they see us doing, not what we tell them to do. If you live a frenetic, stressful, and unhappy life, chances are your kids will grow up to do the same. Strive to model the behaviors and attitudes you want them to adopt. So if you feel that your own priorities are out of whack, make some changes in your life. Be sure you’re modeling all of the behaviors I’m about to describe. Remember, you’re not being selfish in the least—you’re guaranteeing a brighter future for yourself and your kids…and their kids after them.
FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE
Teach your kids to love themselves. When they place value on themselves not because of the grades they make or the friends they have, but simply because of who they are, they’ll develop a deep-seated sense of confidence. This helps guard against everything from feelings of inadequacy to living to please others to bullying, all of which can lead to more serious problems like depression.
Always be your kids’ biggest cheerleaders. Teach them to focus on all of the unique, positive aspects of themselves instead of dwelling on what they can improve and what they’ve done wrong.
And always let them know they are loved unconditionally. So many children believe that they are only as good as their grades, their ability to entertain others, or who their friends are. Teaching them they have intrinsic value starts at home.
DON’T TRY TO BE PERFECT
Help them to let go of the obsession with perfectionism. When your child comes home with four great grades and one that’s not so good (for example, four Bs and one C), do you focus on how great the Bs are? Or is your first response, “What happened? Why did you get the C in this course?”
Always think about how your expectations and reactions might affect your child. Releasing him from the grip of perfectionism has to start with you. Tell him on a regular basis that you love him—not his grades or his sports trophies, but him. Help him to believe that he is adequate and successful no matter what.
Teach your kids to play to their strengths. It’s no secret that we are raising our children in a very competitive world. Many kids—and their parents—feel a compulsion to be good at everything. Kids tend to feel inadequate when they fail to live up to their own expectations. As a parent, don’t support the notion that they should be good at everything. Instead, tell your child that everyone is good at some things and not so good at others—it’s what makes us human! Also, help your child to identify what her strengths and talents are and encourage her to pursue those things, rather than activities that make her feel less-than-great.
PUT THINGS IN PERSEPCTIVE
Help your kids develop the power of perspective. Kids live in a small world where even the “little stuff” is a huge deal. Sure, negative things happen to all of us. But often, we dwell on the past, beating ourselves up for mistakes and worrying about the future. I remember doing all of those things when I was a kid, and I certainly wasn’t the only one.
When your child is faced with a problem or disappointment, sit down with him and make a list of all of the things he is good at—for instance, talented soccer player, wonderful big brother, great artist—and then point out how one mistake is a drop in the bucket. Keep the list handy to pull out as a reminder. Remember, when your child is able to accept failure, move forward, and keep a positive outlook, then he will have developed a crucial skill for his adult life.
GIVE BACK TO OTHERS
Raise your kids to be helpers. As adults, we know how great it can feel when we give back to others. Helping another person—whether it’s through service, teaching, or donating your resources—connects you to the rest of humanity in a powerful way. It also cultivates qualities like selflessness, empathy, and generosity, which are crucial building blocks when it comes to creating healthy, happy kids who grow into fulfilled, balanced adults.
Talk with your kids about what it means to give back and why it’s important, and discuss all the ways to do it. Make sure they understand that giving back doesn’t just mean donating money and that generosity is not limited to giving away things you no longer want. Make a list of projects that your kids are interested in participating in. Maybe they’d like to help out with a food drive or a bake sale, or perhaps they’d rather volunteer at a local animal shelter or nursing home. Have conversations with them throughout the process, helping them to tap into how philanthropy makes them feel and who they’re helping.
Give your kids the gift of gratitude. Unless you live under a rock, you’ve encountered youngsters who are selfish, entitled, impolite, and just plain nasty to others. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these qualities don’t tend to cultivate a happy life, nor are they indicative of an inherently happy person. Fortunately, there’s an antidote to make sure your kids don’t take everything and everyone in their lives for granted: gratitude.
There are so many things you can do to instill gratitude in your kids. Verbally identifying and naming your blessings as a family is one and making thank-you card writing a rule after birthdays and holidays is another. A more subtle method is to deny your kids every once in a while. Of course, I’m not advocating compromising their well being, but the truth is, they don’t need every toy they ask for. Not getting what they want when they want it will help them to value what they do have, and it will protect against entitlement. Making your kids chip in to pay for what they want (whether it’s with money or by doing chores) will have the same effect.
PUT HAPPINESS FIRST
Make happiness a priority for your family. This may seem like a no-brainer. Of course we all make happiness a priority, right? Yet if you take a long, hard look at your family’s lifestyle, you may be surprised at what you find. For many families, academics, sports, or other activities may be in the top priority slots—and they may not be making any of you as happy as you once thought they did. Remember, what you prioritize in your family unit will become the things your kids learn to prioritize, too.
Talk about the things that make your kids happy. Find out whether their daily and weekly activities fulfill them. Ask questions like, “Does playing softball make you feel good?” or “What were you doing today when you felt the best?” If you hear surprising answers, talk about what your family could be doing differently. This isn’t a one-time exercise, either. Sitting down on a regular basis to talk about how to reprioritize will give your kids the valuable skill of evaluating their own lives and letting go of the things that aren’t working.
Don’t focus so much on things like stopping thumb-sucking and using good manners that you forget to emphasize habits that cultivate real happiness. In a very real way, the attitudes and outlooks you instill in your children today will impact the rest of their lives—for good or ill.
Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011), grew up in Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next 18 years helping to grow it to new heights. After selling his business in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wife, Yadira, and their son, Josh. For more information, visit www.findinghappinessthebook.com.