You can certainly help your children to be happier by becoming happier (more engaged, more considerate, and kinder) yourself.
Of course you want your children to be happy! Whatever our culture, we share that. But do you know how? Endless gratification of “I want” certainly doesn’t do it. In fact, it makes monsters of even the nicest children. The truth is, children – like adults – become happier in direct proportion to their engagement with other people, with the world outside themselves as well as their own inner resources; with trust in their own abilities and interests and self-control, and especially when they are able to be trusting and loving, as well as trusted and loved.
Truly, the one and only route to happiness is for your children to discover through daily experience how vital kindness is. This means acting with thoughtfulness and self-respect. It means taking a real interest in others, listening and talking about things that interest and matter. It means asking searching and not banal questions. It means extending their creativity, and constantly valuing their fascination and curiosity about life, nature and learning. That depth of engagement, interest and co-operation brings happiness as nothing else does.
And what works against happiness?
Fearing other people and mistrusting oneself. Relentless competitiveness, aggression, frustration, complaining.. absence of gratitude or self-control. Or, as kids would say, “Being mean!” No one wants to be around a child who is nasty, critical, jealous, self-pitying or unco-operative; who can’t take turns; who can’t lead sometimes and follow at other times.These are hugely off-putting, tragically-common traits. But no one is born like that! Shyness can be modified; even bullying behaviours can be unlearned.
The child that has friends without even thinking about it usually more than capable of watching out for other people and really caring how they are.
The best possible way to encourage the happiness formula is by your own personal example: through your own consideration for others and your own enthusiasm for life.
That will include also accepting that sometimes things will go badly wrong…and that you can get over it or through it. Maybe even gaining wisdom from it. That’s what resilience brings. And resilience and courage are also key to the happiness story. So, too, is being pleased for other people. But that deserves its own article!
Self-control and self-regulation are also vital. (Way more important than endless praise that becomes meaningless when it is not specific and related to pleasure in who your child IS, rather than what she or he ACHIEVES. Yes, be pleased about that, but not addicted to it.) There’s a terrific new Washington Post ARTICLE by Amy Joyce that talks very well about the “how” as well as the “why” children need to be kinder. Link above. And here’s a brief, useful extract from Amy Joyce.
Guide children in managing destructive feelings
Why? Often the ability to care for others is overwhelmed by anger, shame, envy, or other negative feelings.
How? We need to teach children that all feelings are okay, but some ways of dealing with them are not helpful. Children need our help learning to cope with these feelings in productive ways.
Here’s a simple way to teach your kids to calm down: ask your child to stop, take a deep breath through the nose and exhale through the mouth, and count to five. Practice when your child is calm. Then, when you see her getting upset, remind her about the steps and do them with her. After a while she’ll start to do it on her own so that she can express her feelings in a helpful and appropriate way.
I’d add to that two things: 1) teaching children to observe their really uncomfortable feelings, knowing that while they may feel acute right now, that feeling doesn’t last. Respect the feelings but don’t you be overwhelmed by them. You could try: “It’s really hard to feel so disappointed…I hate that feeling too…but you know I wonder if by tomorrow it won’t be so bad? Let’s check on it later for sure…if you want to.” As children move into the flooding emotions of adolescence, knowing already that they can observe and name their feelings and need not be overwhelmed by them, can literally be life-saving. Also 2) teaching children that they have a “quiet place inside” – which they do – which is always peaceful. Practise that, discover that for yourself. Daily. Daily. You needn’t call it meditation but the more you take yourself there, the more familiar it is and the more power you will undoubtedly have to be present, to bear the unbearable, to be present for others too – in their sorrows and in their joys.
Dr Stephanie Dowrick’s most direct books on these wonderful topics are Everyday Kindness and – of course – Choosing Happiness. Links given for Australia. Both books widely available also in their Tarcher/Penguin US and UK editions.