Whatever hopes and goals we have for our children, we all want them to be joyful and experience happiness. The encouraging news is that, just like good manners, you can teach the habits that lead to happy children.
As parents, we hope to impart the beliefs and good habits that we want our kids to carry into adulthood. And, interestingly, a German study from 2013 found that parents do indeed transmit values and behaviours to their children. The researchers also concluded that the life satisfaction of kids continues to be influenced by that of their parents (and vice versa) throughout life.
So, parents have a powerful role to play in the production of happy children. As both a parent and teacher, I know that the early years are a prime time for learning. But as well as academic, social and physical skills, you can also pass on the keys to developing a satisfying and happier life.
In your own quest for happiness, you may have already come across habits that you've started to build into your life. Indeed, you may have realised that this can take a lot of time and effort (and that happiness is a journey and not a destination).
So, if you're a parent, do your children a favour and install them with these happiness habits as they grow up. Even if you're not a parent, this advice is also relevant for those of us with younger family members in our lives, perhaps a niece or nephew.
Regular physical exercise has a host of health benefits. As well as keeping our bodies functioning better for longer, it positively affects memory, concentration and academic performance. Exercise has also consistently been shown to combat the symptoms of depression and anxiety.
We’ve all experienced a lack of motivation for getting off the couch and getting moving. Young, happy children naturally run, climb and dance – they certainly don’t seem to suffer from lack of energy or desire! But somewhere along the line, many of us become more sedentary. But studies indicate that if we use self-control we can turn exercise into a regular habit.
So, how can we make sure our children grow up with exercise as part of their routine? A recent study found that ‘controlled motivation’ for physical activity when younger led to a negative effect on their participation in exercise at age 11. This means we cannot force our kids to exercise.
Like us adults, children want to do things if they’re fun. Partaking in active pursuits as a family will teach them that this is a joyful and standard building block of life. So, your kids need to see you enjoying exercise, too. As I have a toddler, we spend a lot of time in the park. I encourage him to challenge himself when climbing and jumping, giving him absolute freedom unless it’s dangerous.
Also, support your children to find a team sport they enjoy: scheduled practice and forming friendships should help them continue to love it and participate in the long-term.
If you can, do plenty of those physical activities outside. We’ve all seen happy children running around in the fresh air and felt better ourselves after a long walk in a park or along a trail. Indeed, there's a growing body of evidence showing that simply connecting with nature has a positive impact on our mental health.
Forest bathing as a practice began in Japan but has gained popularity as a therapeutic method across the globe. If you want your children to feel less stressed and more mindful, get them into the habit of spending time near trees and green spaces. A study of nearly 300 children in Mexico revealed a link between feeling more connected with nature, demonstrating sustainability-related behaviours and self-perceived happiness.
In our family, we love getting out into the countryside by train or walking to the woods. My son can name different types of birds and trees and asks lots of questions. Like a lot of kids, he adores muddy puddles and collecting sticks and stones!
Nature = happy and contented kids!
If you and your family regularly spend time in natural surroundings, this gives your children an opportunity to feel more connected with the landscape. Carrying this feeling into adulthood, they can give their happiness a boost each time they venture outside.
Finding and pursuing a passion in life is great for our well-being. Indeed, having a sense of purpose and knowing which activities that bring us joy lead to greater happiness.
The best way you can support your child in this quest is by opening up their horizons. Give them opportunities to try a range of things – even things you may not enjoy yourself! Follow their lead and listen when they tell you what they do and don’t enjoy. They will then naturally narrow down to the pursuits that bring them the most happiness. Given a chance to practise regularly and see improvements, they are more likely to continue this hobby past adolescence.
“Parents have a powerful role to play in the production of happy children. As a parent and teacher, I know that the early years are a prime time for learning.”
However, no one likes a pushy parent and it seems children themselves agree! Do not force your kids into activities – simply support them in making choices. Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist, warns against pushing your child towards one specific skill or activity. She told Psychology Today: “When parents support instead of push, kids find their passions and interests and learn to follow their own paths toward success and happiness.”
There are many different forms of journaling, and it has recently become a popular tool specifically for supporting good mental health. Practising gratitude, including on paper, can promote happiness, mindfulness and clarity.
And science shows it can help in creating contented kids. A gratitude practice was linked to happiness in a study of 5-year-olds. Another study looking at teenagers found a positive association between gratitude, life satisfaction and optimism. So whatever age your child is, they can benefit.
Start simply by introducing the concept of gratitude to children at a young age. Asking questions such as “what was your favorite thing you did today?” and modelling statements such as “we are so lucky to get to see this view” will encourage them to do the same. We do this at home and I can already see that our toddler has taken it on board. The other day he got an ice cream and as he sat down to lick it he said, “I’m a lucky pup!”.
Journaling fosters happiness in kids shutterstock/Syda Productions
Once kids have the habit of expressing gratitude verbally, as they get older they can graduate to writing it down. You can give them ideas, but it will work best if they discover a way of journaling that they find most helpful.
As your kids enter adolescence, they may choose not to share this process and document with you but you can rest easy in the knowledge that processing their emotions on paper and feeling grateful for all they have is boosting their happiness. Buy your happy children a new notebook today to start a positive habit that could help them stay that way for years to come.
Sleep is a hot topic in the parenting world! For those of use who are up multiple times in the night, we are well aware of how disturbed sleep affects parents. But the gift of consistently good sleep might be the most powerful gift we can give our children.
Getting a good night’s rest benefits us in lots of ways. Repeated insufficient sleep has been linked to diabetes, heart disease and even lower life expectancy. It can also correlate with depression and anxiety. Happy children are those that get enough good quality sleep.
“When parents support instead of push, kids find their passions and interests and learn to follow their own paths toward success and happiness.”
This is not to say that you need to sleep train your baby: that is a personal choice families make. Rather, as your child grows, help form the habit of a good bedtime routine and teach them what constitutes a suitable sleeping environment.
There are lots of ways to promote good sleep. Provide your child with a comfy, safe bed and a room that isn’t too hot (about 20 degrees celsius). Keep a consistent bedtime routine. Wind down with quiet activities, put away electronics and give your child a bath. Reading a bedtime story has educational as well as sleep-related and emotional benefits.
When your child is older, you can talk to them about the effects of caffeine and alcohol and encourage them to keep their phone outside of their room at night (though that last one might be impossible!).
This might be surprising, but you should avoid over-praising your child. This can turn happy children into frustrated adults. This doesn't mean you should never tell them they’ve done a great job – you just need to praise the right things in the right way.
Liberally piling on the positive feedback can create what’s known as a ‘fixed mindset’ in your child. They will incorporate the idea that (for instance) “I’m good at maths” into their identity. Then when they encounter a challenge or make a mistake, they will be devastated, as this doesn’t tally with their sense of self.
Learn more about instilling a ‘growth mindset’ in your child and they should become more resilient and determined. Teach them that mistakes are not to be avoided at all costs. In fact, they are a vital part of the learning process.
This is something I do with my own son. I’ll admit I sometimes sound a bit silly praising a 6-month-old for their effort but I’m expecting this to pay off in the long run! I look for opportunities to comment on the way he solves a problem or how he shows perseverance rather than simply tell him he is great at something.
The gift you have been given yourself is being in the position to help your child start a lifetime of happiness. While no one is blissfully happy all of the time, you can provide your child with the habits that promote robust mental health and chances for joy.
Many of the ways in which we, as adults, try and pursue happiness can start almost from birth. Model these behaviours in front of your children and explain them explicitly when they're older.
The great news is, that well-being is ‘contagious’ within families. A study has shown that positive aspects of well-being are transmitted between all members of a household. So, working on your child’s happiness habits as well as your own will benefit everyone in your family. ●
Main image: shutterstock/Jacob Lund
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Molly Scanlan is a freelance writer, parent and teacher from London, UK. She writes about health, science, education and parenting. Connect with her on Twitter and find out more on her website.
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