Imagine a ten year-old boy. He enjoys going to school and playing sports. Ever since he was in preschool he’s loved art, and he often draws in his spare time. He also spends a lot of time outside with a friend from the neighborhood, riding bikes up and down the street and inventing games. He has his ups and downs (and always will), but for the most part he’s a well-adjusted, well-behaved kid. He’s going to do well in school right through college. He’ll get a job and excel at it. He’ll get married, and feel fulfilled in that relationship. He’ll remain close to his parents and, you guessed it, he’ll be a great dad.
Sounds wonderful, right? What’s the secret?
Happiness research has boomed in recent decades, and there’s a reason parents are paying attention: Happy children come from happy homes. Genetics play a role in happiness, but studies show that you play a powerful role, too, and that emphasizing certain things in your parenting can result in happier children:
Focus on being happy yourself. Research has found a clear link between happy parents and happy children, even when genetics are ruled out. Becoming happier yourself requires effort (and sometimes medication), but it’s possible. Advances in neuroscience tell us that we can literally train our brains to be happier.
Parental happiness is such an important piece in raising happy children that we dedicated an entire article to simple things you can do every day to train your brain to be happier.
Teach your child about hope and silver linings. Happiness and optimism are like inseparable best friends; you rarely see one without the other. Escorting your baby through childhood is full of opportunities to emphasize optimism. If your little one drops 3/4 of his blueberries on the floor, you can point to the 1/4 that are left and say, “Look! You didn’t lose them all!”
Play. Play. Play. Lots of free, unstructured play has been correlated with a host of positive outcomes, and happiness is one of them. In recent decades mindfulness has become all the rage as people discover that learning to be in the present moment can, among other things, increase calmness and happiness. How can you help your child reap the benefits of mindfulness? Let him play, as often and for as long as possible. Children are naturals at being in the present moment during play.
Fittingly, the popularity of mindfulness emerged alongside an increase in technology, almost as if it to counter our growing tendency to distract ourselves from the present moment with smartphones, tablets and the like. You’ve heard it before and we’ll say it again: For many reasons, including increasing playtime, screen time (even TV) should be limited.
Don’t prevent your child from falling down, teach him how to get back up. The value of failure is well-established. Knowing how to fail well is correlated with several positive outcomes, many of which are also linked to happiness. Research shows that children’s comfort with and ability to bounce back from failure is on the decline. Child development experts believe this may be the result of parents shielding their children from failure in an ironically misguided attempt to make their children happy.
Nurture a “growth mindset”. As opposed to a fixed mindset, in which we believe that our intelligence, personality, and talents are fixed traits that cannot be changed, a growth mindset is one in which we believe that with effort those traits can evolve. This now-famous TED Talk by Carol Dweck highlights a simple step you can take, starting with the developmental efforts of babyhood: Rather than praising your child by telling him that he is smart, strong, or good at something, praise the effort he made. In other words, rather than telling him he’s clever when he finally completes a shape puzzle, acknowledge that he worked hard to complete it.
Focus on emotional intelligence. Being able to recognize, understand and manage our emotions and those of others is associated with psychological well-being and many other positive outcomes.
Prioritize connected relationships from day one. A consistently loving and responsive attachment between a baby and his caregiver(s) is a strong predictor of several life outcomes, including happiness. What’s more, a 75-year study conducted by Harvard University concluded that the single most powerful predictor of happiness is “our relationships and how happy we are in them.” Help your child foster relationships with family, friends, and pets.
Above all, when you connect with your child, focus on him without distractions. Play games with him. Be silly. Laugh. An easy way to build this into every day is with our BabySparks program, where you can find hundreds of activities that will not only nurture attachment, but also support all areas of his development.