Raising Happy Kids

The potential for lifelong joy is inside every child. Here's how to bring it out.

By Edward M. Hallowell MD

Think of the smile that appears on your child's face when he's enjoying an ice cream cone. Those are the moments and feelings we all want to preserve. But once the last drip is licked, what happens to that happy feeling? Does it just go away? Or is it something deeper inside? Can happiness be learned? Or must we be "born" happy? What is happiness anyway?

The study of happiness is a growing field and it's loaded with questions, especially for parents of young children. We all want our kids to grow up to be happy adults — that much is clear. What's often not clear, however, is how to give our children the gift of lasting happiness. We take stabs at it by showering them with nice things, praising them to the hills, and lending a hand when they struggle. Those external motivators are okay from time to time, but the results last about as long as . . . an ice cream cone. To raise a child who knows how to sustain joy throughout his life takes a different approach — one that depends on the development of certain inner qualities, including optimism, trust, respect, joy, self-esteem, and a sense of playful enthusiasm. In short, happiness relies on self-sufficiency and self-love.

What Happiness Looks Like

Let's take a step back for a moment and define happiness. I have two favorites. The first is simply that a happy person has a general feeling that life is going well. He is upbeat and optimistic, and feels as if he is connected to those around him. That's not to say that he doesn't experience sadness at times — we all face loss, grief, and unexpected setbacks. But, in general, life feels good. The second definition is simple yet profound: Happiness is the capacity to enjoy what you have, rather than always wanting what you don't have.

So are we born happy? Or must we "pursue" it, as our nation's founding fathers so eloquently stated? It turns out to be a little of both. All children begin life with a tremendous potential to be happy throughout their lives. Even kids with a genetic predisposition toward traits like anxiety or depression have the ability to lead very happy lives, though it may take more effort for them to reach their full potential for happiness.

Happiness, unlike eye color, is not a trait that is guaranteed to last. What happens during childhood impacts long-term happiness, but that doesn't mean you have no chance of becoming a happy person if your childhood was miserable. There are many happy adults whose younger years were less than ideal. But as a parent, it means that you can—and should — play a role in helping your child create the habits that lead to joyful living.

Five Steps to Lifelong Joy

Fortunately, it's easier than you might think to begin instilling the inner qualities that lead to a lifetime of happiness. With patience and an open mind, the following five steps can help you lay the groundwork for your child:

  1. Connect with others. More than any other single factor we can control, connection is the key to a happy childhood, and adulthood. Connection, in the form of unconditional love from an adult, helps foster self-confidence. Try to create an atmosphere at home in which your child feels cared for, welcomed, and treated fairly. Without that feeling, kids shy away from new things and experiences.

  2. Foster a can-do attitude. This is one of the most reliable defenses against depression and despair at any age. Children watch and learn from how you deal with disappointment, be it in your career or at an athletic event or even just in being cut off in traffic. You can encourage competition, making sure that your child experiences both victory and defeat, and help her deal with each. You can use humor to deal with the pain, or bits of philosophy, or simply let your children see that you never give up.

  3. Pretend and play. Unstructured play hones children’s imagination, teaches critical problem-solving skills, and trains them to tolerate frustration. It also helps children learn that doing things again and again leads to improvement. In fact, play is the most important "work" your child can do. Practice, as part of structured activity, trains children how to receive help and get the most from other adults, such as good teachers and coaches.

  4. Create opportunities for mastery. With mastery comes confidence, leadership skills, initiative, and an enduring desire for hard work. It transforms a child (or an adult) from a reluctant, fearful learner into a motivated player. One of the great goals of parents, teachers, and coaches should be to find areas in which a child might experience mastery, then, make it possible for the child to feel this potent sensation. Once there, children want to go there again and again.

  5. Provide recognition. The feeling of being valued by others (friends, family, community) is key. You can exert a tremendous positive influence through the recognition you offer. We adults too quickly forget how much it meant to us when we were young — it meant the world to us, and to children today it still does. Recognition in turn reinforces the sense of connection that all children need.
Keep It Simple

It's important to say something further about mastery and the hot topic of self-esteem. Some parents think the way to boost a child's self-esteem is to lavish him with praise. Not so. Self-esteem is rooted in mastery. So, if you want your child to have high self-regard, do not go out of your way to offer praise. Go out of your way to make sure he has plenty of opportunities to experience mastery. And always remember to make sure your child feels connected to others and valued for who he actually is, rather than for just his accomplishments. Children who focus only on mastery, rather than mastery and connection, become "accomplishment junkies," always striving for the next thing and never happy with what they have.

One more word: It may be tempting to skip playtime because it seems trivial. Don't. Play is the time children engage fully with what they are doing. So, if your preschooler is interested in taking apart an action figure over and over, let him. If your school-age child likes bicycle racing, let him work with his friends to figure out how to make his bike go faster and pursue his passion. The skills he will build as he "plays" with adjusting his spokes, installing new brakes, or searching the Internet for racing tips are far greater than just learning about bikes.

A good rule of thumb is to keep it simple and enjoy your children. You can't buy happiness — it is learned and earned. But once they have developed a solid can-do attitude, children are set with skills to which they can return throughout their lives.

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