We all want the same things for our kids. We want them to grow up to love and be loved, to follow their dreams, to find success. Mostly, though, we want them to be happy. But just how much control do we have over our children’s happiness?
The surest way to promote your child’s lifelong emotional well-being is to help him feel connected—to you, other family members, friends, neighbors, daycare providers, even to pets. “A connected childhood is the key to happiness,” says Edward Hallowell, M.D., child psychiatrist and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. Dr. Hallowell points as evidence to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, involving some 90,000 teens, in which “connectedness”—a feeling of being loved, understood, wanted, acknowledged—emerged as by far the biggest protector against emotional distress, suicidal thoughts, and risky behaviors including smoking, drinking, and using drugs.
Fortunately, we can cement our child’s primary and most crucial connection—to us—simply by offering what Dr. Hallowell calls the crazy love that never quits. “It sounds hokey, and it’s often dismissed as a given,” he says, “but if a child has just one person who loves him unconditionally, that’s the closest thing he’ll ever get to an inoculation against misery.” It’s not enough, however, simply to possess that deep love; your child must feel it, too, Dr. Hallowell says. Hold your baby as much as possible; respond with empathy to his cries; read aloud to him; eat, snuggle, and laugh together.
Meanwhile, provide chances for him to form loving connections with others as well, advises sociologist Christine Carter, Ph.D., executive director of the University of California at Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, an organization devoted to the scientific understanding of happiness. “We know from 50 years of research that social connections are an incredibly important, if not the most important, contributor to happiness,” Carter says. “And it’s not just the quality, but also the quantity of the bonds: the more connections your child makes, the better.”
Don’t Try to Make Your Child Happy
It sounds counterintuitive, but the best thing you can do for your child’s long-term happiness may be to stop trying to keep her happy in the short-term. “If we put our kids in a bubble and grant them their every wish and desire, that is what they grow to expect, but the real world doesn’t work that way,” says Bonnie Harris, founder of Core Parenting, in Peterborough, New Hampshire, and author of When Your Kids Push Your Buttons: And What You Can Do About It.
To keep from overcoddling, recognize that you are not responsible for your child’s happiness, Harris urges. Parents who feel responsible for their kids’ emotions have great difficulty allowing them to experience anger, sadness, or frustration. We swoop in immediately to give them whatever we think will bring a smile or to solve whatever is causing them distress. Unfortunately, Harris warns, children who never learn to deal with negative emotions are in danger of being crushed by them as adolescents and adults.
Once you accept that you can’t make your child feel happiness (or any other emotion for that matter), you’ll be less inclined to try to “fix” her feelings—and more likely to step back and allow her to develop the coping skills and resilience she’ll need to bounce back from life’s inevitable setbacks.
Nurture Your Happiness
While we can’t control our children’s happiness, we are responsible for our own. And because children absorb everything from us, our moods matter. Happy parents are likely to have happy kids, while children of depressed parents suffer twice the average rate of depression, Murray observes. Consequently, one of the best things you can do for your child’s emotional well-being is to attend to yours: carve out time for rest, relaxation, and, perhaps most important, romance. Nurture your relationship with your spouse. “If parents have a really good, committed relationship,” Murray says, “the child’s happiness often naturally follows.”
Allow for Success and Failure
Of course, if you really want to bolster your child’s self-esteem, focus less on compliments and more on providing her with ample opportunities to learn new skills. Mastery, not praise, is the real self-esteem builder, Dr. Hallowell says. Fortunately, when it comes to the under-4 crowd, nearly everything they do is a chance to attain mastery—because it’s all new to them: learning to crawl, walk, feed and dress themselves, use the potty, and ride a tricycle. Our challenge is to stand back and let our children do for themselves what they’re capable of. “The great mistake good parents make is doing too much for their children,” Dr. Hallowell says.
While it can be difficult to watch our kids struggle, they’ll never know the thrill of mastery unless we allow them to risk failure. Few skills are perfected on a first try. It’s through practice that children achieve mastery. And through repeated experiences of mastery, they develop the can-do attitude that lets them approach future challenges with the zest and optimism that are central to a happy life.
Article culled from Parents.com