How to Improve Your Child's Happiness - Tips from USA'S Happiness Ambassador
"The best way to make children good is to make them happy," said Oscar Wilde.
But, we're not only talking about the joyful moments and experiences here. It's much more than this. We're talking about developing healthy positive habits so children can go on to live their best possible lives.
So, what tools can parents use to create happy youth and set them up for the future? USA's Happiness Ambassador and mother, Maura Sweeney shares her insights.
1. What happiness habits can parents teach their children?
Teach them to be responsible for things beyond themselves - like pets, people and nature. For example, they can learn to water the plants, clean up the dinner table, feed the dog, share their own belongings with friends and visitors. and engage in volunteer work to help the less fortunate. Much of the habits can arise from modeling behaviors.
When our daughter was growing up, we used to bring canned food to a local food bank; cook once a month and bring the whole dinner over to a local foster home; and visit a local nursing home. Sometimes we'd do sing-a-longs or deliver some fun crafts at specific holidays. We would do these as mother/daughter and, at other times, with larger groups of moms and kids. The idea of creating happiness for others proved highly experiential and empowering in creating happiness for ourselves while we were at it!
The above activities teach children to feel responsible, expansive, valuable and thoughtful.
Each of them empowers children to connect with emotional uplift, personal growth, and the feeling that they can "create" happiness while helping and engaging with others.
These experiences and habits also help children learn empathy, thoughtfulness and develop a certain level of emotional intelligence.
2. How can we encourage kids to start a path of self-discovery from an early age and why is this important?
Many children are never asked what they like, never questioned about their environment, never engaged in a reflective manner that would cause them to think and reason for themselves.
As a result, many individuals grow up unaware that there is anything to "discover" about themselves, their preferences, or even their emotions.
Expose children to as many outlets and experiences as possible. Often, this begins with things at home . . . starting with books! With books, children can learn to step into imaginary settings and cultivate their creativity, imagination, critical thinking skills and even begin to discover what resonates and what does not.
Speaking of books, I can recall that our daughter LOVED mystery novels and was only lukewarm on some types of books that appealed to me. The exposure, along with reflective and even emotional questioning about each exposure, helped our daughter figure out -- and then follow along -- those paths of interest she found most appealing.
However, there are so many other ways to lead children on self-discovery. Puzzles, gardening, board games, arts and crafts, home made science experiments are just some examples.
In our daughter's case, there was a lot of exposure to the arts (dance, singing, violin, musical theater) which she loved and exploited by creating some of her own shows. Including an area wide Tampa's Got Talent show that she and her friends launched, advertised for and produced. We also exposed her to sports (swim team and soccer) which she was only mildly attracted to in comparison.
Other areas of self-discovery include the encouragement of creating something uniquely their own. What do they like? How can they take what they like to the next level? Include others in a project?
In the case of our daughter, she launched her own on-line "Tween Magazine" in which she and friends reviewed movies, wrote stories, shared jokes, etc. and then circulated it for readership and responses. It helped develop social and written communication and may have been an early launch into her future choice of majoring in Journalism at University.
Encouraging kids to start on a path of self-discovery is essential to prime the pumps of the many options and opportunities that the world around us offers.
The more children are exposed to, and have opportunity to engage with and try on for size, the more confidence, curiosity and resilience they gain at an early age, with elementary skills required to apply themselves to new and unfamiliar practices later on.
3. How can a parent increase their child's resilience?
I'm going to begin this response in the negative, then finish on the positive.
First, I've closely observed parents who try to protect their children and/or insulate them from disappointment and perceived "failures." I've found that doing so stifles a child's ability to rebound and reset intellectually, emotionally, socially and physically, making them eventually averse to stepping out on their own. While we don't like to see our children struggle or discover that a particular behavior pattern they've engaged in has worked to their disadvantage, it's these freedom-based spaces and cause-and-effect opportunities that are critical for healthy self-image and emotional growth and stability.
Parents who encourage children to "try" and then try again at the same goal or skill after they've fallen short do a far greater service in teaching them resilience.
Moving the goal post from perfection and goal-attainment (i.e. you must attain a perfect report card or perform in sports at a particular level) and focusing on character traits like courage, innovation, perseverance and commitment help children realize that experience, experiments, trials and re-trials are worthy pursuits in and of themselves.
Parents who praise and celebrate a child's willingness to try something new or to try repeatedly in order to find and develop success or mastery is a powerful social and emotional tool of support.
It reinforces to a growing child that the adventures of trying, practicing, learning (even though potentially not attaining the best outcomes along the way) are worthy of praise and also delivers a message that says, "I'm proud of you for applying yourself."
This is a big question that has many legs to it. It can also apply to behavioral fails and a parent's willingness to step in and say NO. (Trust me, I have seen parents too fearful to say no at any level. The poor kids never learned to get rebuffed, corrected, suffer a consequence . . . and later were too incapable of taking criticism and consequences from other authority figures like teachers, coaches, bosses and other authority figures. The effects of such emotional failure on the part of parents is crippling to children who never learn the word NO.)
If a parent is unwilling to bring consequences to a child's undesirable behavior, this, too, can prove harmful to a child's sense of resiliency.
Two personal stories come to mind. Our daughter was quite easy to bring up, but I recall discovering that her desire to "win" at board games brought about an undesirable trait: cheating. She was quite young at the time, but I advised her in no uncertain terms that if I EVER caught her cheating again at a board game, I would toss every one of them into the garbage. She got the message and stopped the practice cold, knowing that I meant business. She continued to love playing games, but never again cheated to my or anyone else's knowledge.
On another occasion, I can remember she and her girlfriends playing telephone jokes with a girlfriend who moved out of the area. I sensed that there might have been some potential cattiness involved. I had her phone the young girl to say she was sorry if she'd caused her any sense of poor jesting or isolation (I'm sure I came up with better words at the time) and also had my daughter speak directly to the girl's mother to own up to the antics of her behavior.
At the time, my calling our daughter out might have seemed a bit over-the-top, but I wanted her to know that her words and behaviors were always affecting other people and that when admissions and/or apologies were in order . . . she'd have to step up to the plate and own them. Today, she's thoughtful, accepts criticism, has a voice of her own, but is mindful of respecting other people, too.
4. What are your three top tips for raising a happy and successful child?
Let them know, in both word and deed, that they are LOVED . . . simply because they ARE. If a child feels the unconditional love of a parent, he or she will have the self-confidence and inner grounding to slay some of the world's great dragons when they step outside the door.
Listen -- audibly as well as intuitively and emotionally -- to your child's messaging, callings and needs. If you can be sufficiently "present" to read your child's needs and provide a listening ear, a hug and/or some suggestions as to how to get them through a confusing, frightening and/or trying time, you will help your child develop the social and emotional skills to help themselves grow and thrive in life.
Include your child in conversations, activities, plans and projects. In doing so, and in age-appropriate ways, you'll naturally begin to raise and rear a productive, engaged and "can-do" adult!