Happiness. The definition of happiness, according to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is a state of well-being, contentment, and joy. Synonyms include blessedness, bliss, felicity, gladness, and joy, all good things. But should happiness alone be the be-all-end-all when raising our children? I argue that it isn’t. Happiness is indeed a worthy goal. We all want happy children. But in our attempts to constantly make and create happiness for our children, we may be doing them a disservice.
Life is so much more than being happy. Life involves struggle, anticipation, hard work, empathy, fear, anger, and sadness. And, if we attempt to shield our children from the complicated emotions, how can they possibly learn how to handle disappointment, problems, and complex feelings when they occur; because they will.
Kindergarten teachers have stated that a child’s social-emotional readiness is more important than knowing their ABCs, counting, or other academic achievements. These changes in expectations over the past two decades are based on multiple studies showing the importance of social-emotional skills and the connection to academic success.
A 2018 study from Johns Hopkins University that included over 9,000 children revealed that children in fourth grade who entered kindergarten before they were emotionally ready were:
- 80% more likely to be retained in grade
- 80% more likely to require special education services
- 7 times more likely to have been suspended or expelled at least once over the past 5 years
Being socially and emotionally means:
- Getting Along with Others
- Identifying and regulating one’s emotions and behavior
- The ability to follow directions
- The ability to regulate their emotions
- Persisting on task even when challenging or they fail at first
- Engaging in social conversation and cooperative play
- The ability to interpret other’s behavior and emotions
- Taking pride in their accomplishments and praising the accomplishments of others
If you notice, happiness is nowhere on that list. However, happiness will follow when a child can achieve the above list. Being in control of your emotional stability provides room for happiness to grow.
To create the wished-for “happy childhood” we all want for our kids, I believe we must do and teach the following skills.
Create Realistic Goals and Accept Failure
One of the most important things we can do for our children is set them up for success. But, when they fail to succeed, we must also teach them that failure is a part of life and teaches perseverance.
Setting a child up for success means creating realistic goals and not excepting them to do tasks beyond their developmental level. To do this effectively, you need to understand where your child is developmentally.
For example, don’t give toddlers a full glass of milk; they will spill it. Likewise, preschoolers need extra time to get dressed because of developing fine motor skills, provide ample time, and don’t rush.
There are many famous quotes about failure and trying again, but one of my favorites is attributed to Thomas Edison:
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
Every failure is an opportunity to learn something new. We can use failure and disappointment to teach essential problem-solving skills and enhance cognitive development.
Support and Guide – Don’t Always Do
Along this same vein is offering support and guidance to our children but not doing everything for them or solving every problem. Life has disappointments, and life has challenges. If we never allow children to experience discomfort or sadness in our efforts to create a happy childhood, we take away their ability to problem solve and process complex emotions.
Make emotions OK
You may have been raised to believe that demonstrations of strong or negative emotions were unacceptable, were signs of weakness, or saw them handled inappropriately. Therefore, you may also shy away from expressing big emotions as an adult. However, emotions are healthy and normal and should be expressed.
Name and validate your child’s emotions and discuss healthy ways to handle them. You should also be honest and open about your feelings. Parents are allowed to be mad, upset, disappointed, etc. too!
- “Benji, I know you are mad it’s bedtime, but throwing your toys is not OK. What could you do instead if you’re feeling mad?”
- “Losing your soccer match is disappointing and frustrating, but yelling at your teammates isn’t appropriate.. Let’s discuss healthier ways to handle your feelings.”
- “Yes, I am angry right now. But, before we discuss this further, I need a few moments to calm down and collect my thoughts.”
Teach Self Regulation
Teaching a child how to self-regulate gives them control over their emotions. Different tactics work for different people, so figure out what works for you and your child.
Some options are:
- Yoga, stretching, or breathing exercises
- A special quiet place to go when upset
- Journalling or coloring feelings
- Sensory toys: squishy balls, liquid timers, or stuffed animals to hug
- Listening to calming music
Demonstrate and Teach Kindness and Empathy
It seems simple, but many children and teens struggle with this task, particularly if no one teaches them how to do it. Getting along with others means being respectful and kind, following directions, learning the rules of giving and take in conversations, and discovering appropriate solutions to conflict.
Saying, “Because I said so” or “Shelia had the toy first, give it back.” doesn’t teach the child or help them understand what is appropriate. While you don’t have to offer textbook-length explanations, you should offer context behind rules, expectations, and feelings.
- “I need you to clean up your room this weekend. There are too many toys on the floor aand I am worried someone might trip and get hurt, or a toy will get broken.”
- “Bella, Shelia had that doll first. I know you want a turn, but you need to ask. Why don’t you play with this doll until she’s finished?”
- “Ren, I am very disappointed you hit your brother. Do you see how sad he is? What could you do to make him feel better?”
Discover and Support Things Meaningful to Them
This is a hard one for many parents, but just because you were the football star or had the lead in the school musical doesn’t mean your child will share your interests. When our children are babies, we dream of all the things we’ll do together and how we’ll teach them our favorite hobby. But for many children, the pressure to make their parents happy depletes their happiness. Kids don’t want to let us down, so they often pretend to like something even when they don’t. Sometimes the pressure becomes too much, and arguments and even depression occur. We’ve all seen the teen flicks with the theme, “I just can’t live up to you” or “I’m not you!”
Instead, learn about their hobbies and don’t force them to participate in yours. Show support even when you can’t listen to one more baseball statistic or the sound of them practicing the violin is driving you up a wall. Allowing them to thrive in their skin gives them confidence, boosting the chances of that elusive happiness.
Give Them Some Control
Children have very little control over their lives. From the time they’re little, they’re told what to do, what to eat, what to wear, where to go, and so on. Allow your child age-appropriate control.
- “Do you want goldfish or pretzels for snack today?”
- “Would you like to help with the laundry or empty the dishwasher?”
- Allow them to choose their own clothing.
- Allow them to choose their extracurricular activities: sports, music, dance, debate club, etc.
- Give older children and teens privacy and knock before entering their room
- Respect their body; don’t force hugs, kisses, handshakes, etc., from you or anyone else.
Raising a child is daunting; we all want our children to be happy. But it’s essential that in our quest to provide the ultimate happy childhood, we don’t strip our children of the very skills they need to create their own happiness. Life is full of ups and downs. And, for our children to fully appreciate the ups, we must arm them with the tools to handle and overcome the downs.