Ask parents what they want most for their children and they’ll answer the same: happiness. But if we hover and coddle and grant their every wish, they grow up to expect that treatment from the rest of the world and are going to be seriously unhappy when they realize that’s not how things work. And if we exert too much control while instilling traditional discipline and a strong work ethic, says a new British study, we could scar them emotionally for life.
“Of course we will all still have negative emotions, and parents should not try to protect their children from those experiences. Time and again, the research demonstrates that what we say and do with children is far more important in their success and happiness than any innate talent or disposition.”
Get started today—no matter what age your children are—cultivating the following five character traits that positive psychologists have found happy children share. (Not surprisingly, they’re also found in joyful, fulfilled adults!)
1. Happy kids are connected
Today’s parenting culture tends to revolve around achievement—be it in the classroom or on the playing field—and that’s a mistake, say positive psychology experts. Focus instead on really getting to know and enjoy your kids. Knowing they are loved for who they are is fundamental to a happy life.
“The most important thing parents can give a child is a life that’s full of positive points of connection—at home, at school, on teams, at church and in your community,” says Dr. Edward (Ned) Hallowell, Harvard psychiatrist and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. “And those positive connections occur when you enjoy your kids and have fun together. Set up family traditions and celebrations. Use physical touch: Snuggle, kiss, wrestle.”
Of course your family life won’t be perfect: “You will get mad and yell; you will be too busy to sit down for dinner together all the time; they will try to get out of doing chores. All of that is good; they’re signs you are connecting!” he notes. “In disconnected families there is no conflict, because no one cares.”
Preschoolers: “Kids need to get that you like them,” says teacher and family therapist Susan Stiffelman, author of Parenting with Presence: Practices for Raising Conscious, Confident, Caring Kids. “They need to feel like your heart lights up when you see them. That tells children they have value and infuses them with confidence so that later, when life doesn’t go as they expect, they are still able to cope.” Let the chores wait and read together, play in the backyard, take a nature walk, act silly. Be a kid again yourself when you’re with them.
Another excellent decision if you can swing it, Ned says, is to get a pet. Pets not only teach children responsibility, but they provide more opportunity to practice give-and-take relationship skills, reinforce the power of unconditional love and will help the whole family relax and have fun together.
Teenagers: “Interactions with teens can quickly devolve into ‘Do this’ and 'Haven't you finished that yet?' and Where’s that permission slip you were supposed to bring home?’” Susan notes. “You get so little time with teens that you don’t want all your interactions to be about getting them to do something. But they’re also not inclined to sit down and play Monopoly with you for two hours.”
Instead, Susan recommends ignoring your to-do list and when your teen walks into the room, try to conjure up that baby you couldn’t take your eyes off—even though he may be in serious need of a shower—and pay him a compliment or tell him a joke. “You want to shift the ratio so that you have more positive interactions and fewer demanding ones,” she says. “It can just be a short 30-second exchange, but if it results in a smile, it’s a deposit into the emotional bank account. Your teen will feel uplifted and you’ll have demonstrated you care without forcing it.”
2. Happy kids are playful
“There’s so much pressure to sign kids up for loads of activities today, but not enough free time negatively impacts a child’s happiness in two ways,” explains Katie Hurley, Los Angeles author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World. First, if kids are constantly doing structured activities, they are not spending time with you.
Different children can handle different degrees of busyness, but a good rule of thumb is one sport, and maybe one other activity per season. Secondly, overscheduled kids don’t get time to just play, which provides a wealth of benefits that contributes to happiness: Play develops imagination and creativity, builds social skills and teaches problem-solving, to name just a few.
Play is also a critical way to discover what you’re good at, Ned says, and that leads children to want to practice and master that skill, whether it’s riding a bike, shooting a basketball, painting or learning to cook.
Grade-schoolers: Sports are terrific arenas for play now, and that goes beyond just signing them up for an official team, Ned notes. Encourage your kids to have friends over to play soccer in the backyard. Organize a flag football tournament or basketball game at family gatherings. “And when your child does play on a team, don’t turn it into a pressure-packed, hypercompetitive drama. Emphasize the fun aspects, not the win-loss record,” Ned says.
Teenagers: Finding the high-school equivalent of playing in the sandbox is challenging to say the least, but adolescents need those creative outlets more than ever. Point them toward groups like makerspace.com, an online community where they can create, invent and learn about things they’re interested in with peers. Encourage writing a short story or taking up photography. Got a musician? Invest in some noise-canceling headphones (for yourself!) and allow her to have friends over for jam sessions. At this age, play takes a more productive turn but is nonetheless creative.
3. Happy kids are…confident
Few feelings in life are as thrilling as that moment when a child realizes, “I can do it!” The sense of security that comes with deep connections, along with the skills your child builds through play, leads to the confidence to try new things. And con! dent children are optimistic children. “When problems arise, as they do for all of us, the confident, optimistic child tackles them with the certainty that they are solvable and continues to try again, rather than give up,” Ned explains. Christine seconds that: “Optimism is so closely related to happiness that the two can practically be equated,” she notes, “and a key to helping your child stay optimistic is teaching a growth mindset. Growth mindset people believe that success is a result of effort, not inborn talents.”
Preschoolers: Start early on to use praise to cultivate a positive mindset. Be sure you're praising specific hard work and good deeds rather than the child. So instead of “Great job!” or “You’re so smart!” say, “That was really nice of you to let Jack use the swings first," or "You worked really hard on that puzzle and you didn't give up until you figured it out.” Avoid pessimistic reactions to your child’s behavior as well. Say one sibling hits another. Instead of “That’s mean, Emma. You’re not going to have any friends at preschool if you act that way,” respond with a way to help. Try “You’re having a hard time, Emma. I bet you’re hungry. Say you’re sorry and let’s get something to eat so you feel better.” This way, Emma sees that even though she is experiencing the negative feelings, they are temporary and she has the power to fix them, Christine says.
“People incorrectly believe that perfectionism will propel kids to the top of their class, their teams, and ultimately their careers,” Christine notes. “Instead, perfectionism creates a constant state of discontent and fear of making mistakes.” Avoid this scenario by not doing too much for your child: If you constantly correct his math homework or rewrite his essays, he’ll begin to believe he’s not capable of doing it on his own. If you repeatedly deliver that forgotten lunch or homework, he’ll have no reason to try to remember it. And when you do need to deliver criticism, try to make it positive and productive: Instead of “I told you to put your science folder in your backpack last night,” say, “You remembered your homework Monday. What did you do then that you didn’t do today?”
Teenagers: Confidence is essential to your teen’s ability to make safe, informed decisions, and it grows as he or she learns to cope when life throws curve balls. It’s hard to do, but the bigger they get, the more we need to let them fail a bit, then bounce back on their own, Christine says.
“Happy kids can risk making mistakes because they know how to correct them and they take steps on their own to do so.” Instead of jumping
in and fixing things, help your child make a plan to reach his goal. When your teen gets cut from a high school sports team, for example, acknowledge the disappointment and praise the effort he put in: “I know you probably feel sad and frustrated. You worked really hard on your basketball shooting skills.” But also encourage him to think positively about ways to succeed: “What do you think you could do to increase your chances of making the team next time?”
4. Happy kids are…grateful
Of course you’ve been teaching your children to say “Please” and “Thank you” since they began to talk. Now a bevy of research connects a deeper understanding and attitude of gratitude with true happiness and life satisfaction.
Preschoolers: One of the first things you want to do with your children is make a habit of expressing thankfulness for the family’s blessings. Researcher Giacomo Bono, Ph.D., co-author of Making Grateful Kids: The Science of Building Character, has found that children who say grace at mealtime have developed more gratitude than their peers. Get into the habit of saying the traditional prayers of your faith with your children at dinner and bedtime, but also use these moments to express thanks for people in their lives, he recommends.
Giacomo also advises parents to emphasize the nuances of gratitude to young children. Point out how, for example, a gift is going to improve a child’s life: “Those finger paints Aunt Sara gave you are going to be a lot of fun. Let’s invite some friends over to play with them.” Then explain that the benefactor made a choice to do something good and went out of her way to do it for you: “It was really kind of Aunt Sara to make a special trip to the toy store and spend her money on you.”
Also make it a habit to encourage your child to do nice things for others: “I put an extra snack in your backpack. Why don’t you share it with one of your friends at school today?”
Grade-schoolers: As kids mature a bit more, they can better appreciate the intentions and motivations of the benefactor, so point those out, too. Say, for instance, “It was really nice of your violin instructor to recommend you for that orchestra. She really loves playing and wants you to feel the same passion for it.”
Teenagers: Adolescents are ready to discover their meaning and passion in life, and practicing gratitude will help them do that, Giacomo notes. Tap into their interests by giving them ideas on how to use technology to express gratitude. Instead of writing a thank-you note, teens can make a thank-you video. They can create a slideshow of things they’re grateful for on their phones or make a Pinterest board. Also encourage your child to share his skills in the community. A varsity athlete might volunteer to coach younger kids in his sport; a teen with an interest in photography could share her skill with a group of seniors.
5. Happy kids are positive thinkers
Teaching kids to have a glass-half-full attitude when something negative occurs in their lives is essential to their happiness, and building all the other skills we’ve discussed so far puts them on this positive track. “Understanding what triggers all types of feelings helps children work through the negative so they get to a positive viewpoint,” Katie notes. To make this happen, parents need to be “emotion coaches,” Christine emphasizes. According to research, children—and adults—who can manage their emotions experience negative feelings for shorter periods of time.
Preschoolers: The first step with little ones is label, label, label, beyond happy and sad. Katie recommends describing your child’s emotions as well as his behavior back to him: “You just kicked the tower over. You must be frustrated.” Then replace the negative thought with a positive one: “I bet you can get the tower to keep standing. What do you think would have worked better?”
Instead of “I can’t do this,” stepping back and taking a deep breath allows them to get to “OK, I can fix this.” “I tell kids to pretend they are blowing up a balloon very slowly. It calms their senses and slows their heart rate,” Katie explains. “It’s a skill they can use at any time.”
Teenagers: Being an adolescent today is seriously stressful, and even kids who have had it together so far can buckle under the pressures of popularity (or lack thereof) and academics. “One of the main functions of adolescence is to learn to cope with really big emotions, but you also don’t want your coaching to feel condescending,” Christine notes.
“A smart way to keep things positive now is to frequently narrate your own emotions for your teen, but also follow that with a positive.” Say, for instance, “Standing in this checkout line is really aggravating, but we’ll have all the groceries we’ll need and won’t have to waste time coming back to the store for a few days.” Or, “Boy, am I nervous about this presentation tomorrow, but when we get the business I’ll get a nice bonus and we can take a special vacation this summer.” As Christine says, you want to teach them to “fake it until you make it.”
The science of positive psychology has shown us that forcing yourself to smile when you don’t always feel like it creates a physiological reaction that produces feel-good brain chemicals. And when children learn how to induce their own positive emotions, happiness wins.
Stephanie Wood is a freelance writer and editor based in the New York City area.