As parents, all we want for our children is for them to grow up happy. Compared to this one ultimate goal, others pale into insignificance. It doesn’t matter if your child has a school career festooned with string of A* exam grades and is set for a braggable future career, if they’re not happy. That means happy in themselves, happy with the world around them and armed with an ability to shrug off problems and move on.
And that’s a state of mind we can nurture in our children - an acceptance of themselves, a mental contentment, a willingness to see the glass half full rather than lament the lack of more.
So how can we teach our children to be happy?
1. Offer unconditional love.
“Rejoice in who your children are, not what they do,” says Linda Blair, clinical psychologist and author of The Happy Child: Everything you need to know to raise enthusiastic, confident children. “Each of your children is unique, so expect surprises and celebrate their differences.”
2. Be consistent.
Set clear boundaries that your children understand and can feel secure within and stick to them: a regular daily routine; expectations of behaviour and simple home rules. Children thrive when they know where they stand, so if you’re parenting as a couple don’t undermine each other and try to present a united front. “Fear wipes out happiness and that can happen for a child who’s confused about expectations,” says Linda.
3. Be happy yourself.
Take time to do things you enjoy for your own pleasure and satisfaction. You’re not being selfish; you’re modelling happiness and research has shown happy parents are more likely to have happy children.
If you want to go to that party, book the babysitter and go. If you love swimming or going to an exercise class, do it regularly. Whatever makes you happy, make sure you set some time aside to pursue that happiness - and show your children the satisfaction and elation you derive. Don’t make it a guilty pleasure, or bemoan that you can’t do it as much as you like.
Laugh a lot and surround yourself with friends and family who make you laugh. It’s important your children grow up with the background noise of laughter and joy.
4. Encourage effort.
“Try to praise your children for the effort, and not the end result,” says Linda Blair. That way they’ll learn that happiness comes from trying and taking part, not about winning and the dread of failure.
This extends to trying to steer clear of empty phrases, especially as they get older, like “you’re so clever / so beautiful / the sporty one”, which have the end result of meaning nothing and making children feel boxed in or misunderstood.
Descriptively praise your children’s actions with the emphasis on being flexible, tolerant and not giving up.
5. Don’t give false praise.
Children know when you’re being fake. Give specific, positive praise, rather than meaningless generalisms.
6. Help children feel at ease in social situations.
Encourage your children’s social skills. “Face out, not face down,” says Linda. “Limit their screen time and make time when devices are turned off and you have time to chat. Remember you’re the role model, so you need to put down your mobile too. Give them experiences of as many social interactions with as many different people as you can, to raise their confidence in different situations.”
7. Give your children opportunities and choices.
Encourage your children to have interests and hobbies. “You want your children to have that wonderful experience of being fully engaged and absorbed, not noticing the time,” says Linda Blair. “Offer them as many opportunities as possible when they’re younger and don’t worry if they lose interest in one thing and want to pick up another. But by the time they’re eight or nine, they should be able to choose one or two interests they want to pursue. That’s when the importance of dedication and effort really comes into play.”
8. Watch your language.
It isn’t always easy but when you’re faced with problems, try to frame them positively for your children’s benefit. Instead of moaning about your awful work day, switch the woe-is-me language to say something like “it was a challenging day and now I’m going to relax” and rinse some funny anecdotes out of your day. Through your upbeat attitude, you’re demonstrating first hand how you’re not laid low by outside pressures and how to be mentally resilient.
Our attitudes become a blueprint for how children will learn to behave into adulthood. We can’t tell your children how to be resilient but you can embody resilience. Children learn essential skills by modelling adults’ behaviour - a pragmatic attitude to life, a calm confidence that you can’t always succeed but you can learn by experiences and bounce back to happiness.