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. 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 optimism. 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 they drop 3/4 of their 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 playtime 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 increase calmness and happiness. How can you help your child reap the benefits of mindfulness? Let them 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. You’ve heard it before and we’ll say it again: For many reasons, screen time (even TV) should be limited.
Don’t prevent your child from falling down, teach them 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 a 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: Rather than praising your child by telling them they are smart, strong, or good at something, praise the effort they made. For example, rather than telling them they’re clever when they finally completes a shape puzzle, acknowledge that they 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 their 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 them without distractions. We know this can be hard, but brief periods of undivided attention help! Play games with them. 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 your child’s development.