From the first sonogram to the first day of college, parenting can be simultaneously the hardest and the most rewarding job. When I asked parents their top five priorities for their child, happiness was at the top of most lists. And yet with bullying, anxiety and depression in our world, how can we change the culture of fear-based parenting so that our children can truly flourish? Here are a few tips from positive psychology experts that can be easily incorporated into your parenting andhave been proven to increase happiness.
Actively listening to your child means eye contact, not interrupting, and not waiting for your turn to talk. If they aren’t asking for advice, don’t give it. Instead ask them questions like, “What do you think you could do about that?” or “How did that make you feel?” Really hearing what your child wants to tell you will encourage them to continue communicating. Making every conversation a lesson (given by you) leaves them feeling inferior and disempowered. Take advantage of time together in the car or at meals and practice just hearing their ideas with an open mind.
Make mistakes when they are watching
Resilience allows us to make lemonade out of lemons or to get back on the bike when we have fallen off 10 times. Children learn more from your example than they do from your words. If you want them to believe that part of growth is making mistakes, they need to see you burn dinner or fall on the ski slopes occasionally. One of your most powerful opportunities to demonstrate this to your child is when you make a parenting mistake. Let’s say you lose your cool and yell. Instead of hoping they will forget your outburst you can say, “I don’t want to yell at you when I am frustrated. I’m sorry. Even mommies make mistakes.”
Let them make messes and mistakes
Happy children know they can cope. They have learned by getting off at the wrong bus stop or pouring the milk too quickly and having it spill. According to child psychologist JoAnn Deak, kids feel supported when they don’t do something right the first time and they are more likely to keep trying. This leads to children with greater problem solving skills as adults. The ability to think outside the box is more about nurture than nature. When they learn this type of thinking in childhood, it translates to success in adult years.
Spend time outside together
No matter where you live, you can find nature. Getting outside boosts moods and provides time where you are really focusing on the activity at hand, according to a study published by Richard Ryan in the Journal of Environmental Psychology. Whether you are hiking, biking, swimming, canoeing, or just walking the dog, nature helps to release stress.Studies show outdoor time helps children grow lean and strong, enhances imaginations and attention spans, decreases aggression, and boosts classroom performance according to the National Wildlife Federation.
Teach them gratitude
Gratitude is the fastest shortcut to happiness.Studies done at Berkeley have linked gratitude to increased personal well-being. If children are grateful for what they already have in life, they are more likely to be happy. Starting a family ritual of sharing the best moment of each family member’s day and one thing they are grateful for every time your have a sit down family dinner. Families who sit down to eat together raise healthier children.
Praise them often for what they do not what they are
Humans have a negativity bias. We remember the bad stuff in our day more than the good stuff. The chemicals released by negative emotions like anger and fear just pack a stronger wallop than the gentler positive emotions like hope, inspiration and joy. Carol Dweck’s research has found that to counteract this we need to praise them seven times for each time they hear something they perceive as negative. Praise needs to be given in a very specific way for it to be most effective. When a child is praised for being smart they get a boost in their happiness. However smart is something you are not something you work at. Inevitably even the best student will find something that they have to work harder to be successful at. If your child thinks that they are smart when things come easily and not smart when they have to work at things, you are setting them up to stop trying when things get tough. Instead, praise your child for their planning, their effort and their technique. That way when things are tough you can point out how great they have been at figuring things out in the past.
“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” The best part of childhood is all the playing. Show your kids how to climb trees. Dress up and be superheroes together. Have a tea party or a dance off. The sillier the better. Happy children laugh frequently.
Teach them compassion
Compassion is two-fold: compassion for self and compassion for others. Many children receive the message from their parents, “I love you when you are good” or “I love you as long as you love me”. Teaching a child to be self-compassionate means demonstrating love in an unconditional way. Removing your love as a penalty for bad behavior causes them to believe that when they act a certain way they are not worthy of your love. According to parenting expert Thomas Gordon, it is best to avoid statement like, “if you loved me you wouldn’t do that’. Never attach your love to their behavior and they will learn to love themselves.
Modelling compassion for others is the second part. Show your children how to be empathetic and caring. Help people. Volunteer together. Point out how fortunate you are to live where you live and have what you have so they develop gratitude for things they might otherwise take for granted.
Show them love
Of course this means your physical hugs, cuddles and kisses. It also means demonstrate hugging, holding hands and kisses with your partner and your extended family too. Our sensory system is built to support our need for social connection. Touch is one of the best ways to do this. Just like we feel a decrease in stress hormones after petting a dog, physical contact is one of the ways humans share connection and boost positive emotion. According to Dacher Keltner in an article published by the Greater Good Science Center, “In recent years, a wave of studies has documented some incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch.”
Help them learn to regulate their emotions
The prefrontal cortex is one of the areas of the brain most sensitive to parental influence and interaction. This is the area that deals with emotional regulation. If your child wants a cookie before dinner and you say no, most children will attempt to use a cute baby voice with a “puh-lease”. Then when that doesn’t work they whine. And if they still don’t get a cookie they might scream. This is where you have the chance to react to their scream. Note to new parents: if you give them a cookie you have taught them that screaming works to get what they want (same as if you cave at whining or feigned cuteness). If you get anxious when your child is frustrated or disappointed,your child will learn to have your reaction–anxiety. Instead model appropriate emotional reactivity and praise them when they do too.
Give them wings and watch them fly
Our job as parents is ultimately to teach our children how to care for their own needs. The sooner a child begins to feel successful at self-care, the better. We worry so much about all the things that might go wrong that we sometimes rob our children of the opportunity to try. Start with simple things. How many times have you started the shower for your child when they are fully capable to turn on the water and check the temperature on their own? These are the baby steps to self-sufficient and happy adults. But it all begins with a happy child.