How To Raise Children Who Are Happy

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Have you ever heard of the "science of happiness?" Dr. Timothy Sharp is the founder of The Happiness Institute and a prominent leader in positive psychology. While the history of psychology has been more concerned with what is wrong with people, positive psychology focuses on what works well in people. According to Dr. Sharp, "when applied to parenting, positive psychology suggests we work with our kids to build on innate strengths and help them frame their world in a more optimistic way." 

Dr. Sharp outlines 5 different areas to focus on in order to raise your children to choose happiness: 

  • Establish Family Foundations

  • Build Character

  • Set Positive Boundaries

  • Make Learning Safe and Fun

  • Ensure Well-being

To read more about each area, check out the descriptions. below. 

Establish Family Foundations

The foundation of your family is central to everything you do and say, it includes your family values, future goals, and priorities.  It is important to look deeper into yourself and your family of origin, to discover what you want to hold on to and what you need to let go of to create a healthy foundation for your family. Establish what it means to foster healthy relationships, manage thoughts, communicate effectively, utilise strengths, and promote a healthy lifestyle.  If possible, take the time to set your family foundations before kids come in to the picture, because after you will have less time for reflection. 

Build Character

Once you have a clear understanding of your family values, you can start to focus on building character--resilience, courage, humor, openness, kindness, compassion, perseverance, optimism, etc... Your presence is key to your child's development. Dr. William Sears says, "Believe it or not, parents' greatest influence over a child's personality and emotional development is during the first year...they learn--a lot! Babies are also developing a sense of who they are and what the world is like. These beliefs will influence their behaviour in the years to come." Dr. Sharp suggests that from ages 0-8, parents' role is more like a teacher, guiding and directing; from ages 8-18, parents' are likes coaches, helping them review options, considering consequences, and ultimately letting them decide; and then from 18-adulthood the parents' role is that of a mentor, sharing experiences about what has and hasn't worked for you in the past, enabling your child to make their own decisions.  Helping your child build character will carry them through the rest of their adult years, no matter what challenges they may experience. 

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Set Positive Boundaries

The basis for boundaries is trust. According to Dr. Sears, basic trust is developed with children during infancy-- babies learn to trust in their parents when the parents respond sensitively to their cries.  If your child knows you have their best in mind, they will mind your boundaries.  Establishing clear boundaries that are based upon your family values will help your children know what is expected from them, will help them feel safe and secure, and will limit the need for constant instruction and rebuke.  Setting boundaries takes time, patience, presence, persistency, and consistency. Parents need to lead by example, because your children are watching you.  Appropriate discipline and consequences is a part of setting boundaries.  (To read more about discipline, read The Discipline Book, by Dr. Sears.) To encourage positive behaviour, try using positive reinforcement, two of the most powerful reinforcers are praise and attention. If you are not pleased with your child's behaviour, try diffusing the situation by distracting or redirecting (according to age)--changing the topic of conversation, redirecting to a new activity/person, or engaging in a topic you know is interesting to them. This tends to calm down the child in order to be able to constructively work through the issue. It is also important to have flexibility with boundaries based upon the child's needs, personality, or special circumstances. For example, if you see the child is acting out of tiredness, it is better just to offer a hug. Remember, they are human beings, learning how to manage themselves in a big world. We all need grace.

Make Learning Safe and Fun

Learning is central to human development--from the moment we are born, we are learning. If learning is safe, fun, and appropriate to that child's level of development, interests and temperament, then it will be a positive experience they will want to continue engaging in throughout their lives.  When learning is enjoyable, children are more engaged, energised, and focused. Throughout your child's education, involve yourself in their school life and events, encouraging their strengths/talents in extracurricular activities, meeting their friends, identifying problems and taking action as soon as possible. Make their interests your interests. Encourage curiosity, and learn together, if you don't know the answer, discover it together. Don't focus too much on failures, rather focus on strengths and areas of interest.  Stay in open communication with your children with regards to friends, peer pressure, and bullying.  Help your child overcome fears and act courageously. By making learning safe and fun, you are giving your child tools that will enable them for the rest of their lives.

Ensure Well-being

Human beings are both physical and emotional, you cannot affect one without affecting the other.  The eating and exercise habits of children will carry with them into adulthood. Involve your children in learning about healthy eating, cooking, and exercise. Make healthy eating and exercise fun. Guide your children towards a goal of being healthy and fit rather than a certain body size or weight. Teach them to accept their appearance and the beauty of variety. Establish healthy routines with relaxing and sleeping as well as allowing them time just to be bored (to learn more about the benefits of boredom in childhood, read this article). Help your children develop problem-solving strategies. Living with a wholistic perspective will offer your child an opportunity for making healthy choices for themselves. 

A Personal Note

Although Patrik and I did not read either of these books before having our son, and didn't know about positive psychology, I can see ways that we implemented many aspects of this into our relationship and parenting. Individually, we both have learned more about our strengths and trying to capitalise on those in our work and marriage.  After we found out we were pregnant, we concretely established our family values in writing. We wanted to use that as a platform for parenting, and it has served us well. There were times when I would receive advice from well-meaning parents that just didn't feel right for us and our family. I can see now how our parenting style is responsive, connected, and attached. I am happy to say that I am an expert of my son because for his first year of life I was in tune to his cries and deciphering his needs. We will continue to work with the rest of the areas and look forward to see our son spread the joy within him.  

To read more about how to instill happiness in your children, please read Dr. Sharp's book, "100 Ways to Happy Children: A Guide for Busy Parents." To learn more about how you can help your kids turn out well, read Dr. William and Marsha Sears' book, "The Successful Child."