We all want to be happy, and as parents, we all want our kids to be happy, too. We want to give them all the things we may have missed in our own childhoods, and fill them up with knowledge, love, and joy. We sign them up for lessons to boost creativity and learning, we push them to excel at sports, will fill their lives with the latest toys and electronics, we pack weekends with activities, and we sometimes work overtime to create magical memories—hoping to help our children have fun as they learn and grow.
But I think sometimes, in our eagerness to give our kids everything, we may go overboard.
Here’s the thing–children are pretty darn joyful by nature. Without the cares of the world to weigh them down, they’re often able to experience a vast range of emotion over the most mundane experiences. No child is happy all the time, of course, and some kids are cross more frequently than others (just like some adults), but all children are constantly in a state of wonder and discovery.
Maybe we need to just stop trying so hard.
So what’s the secret to happy children? In the end think it is giving kids what they need most, while allowing them the freedom to grow, learn, and explore the world on their own. Here are the 10 things kids need to be happy (as well as the two they don’t!)
Most us try to do our best to ensure our children are kept as safe as possible at all times. It’s impossible for a child to learn, thrive or experience happiness if they’re worried about their home environment or if they feel unsafe.
That said, kids are amazingly resilient. While a parent’s job is to keep them healthy and safe, to take them to the doctor and dentist regularly, and to tend to any injuries or illnesses, it’s not necessary to try to shelter them from every possible worst-case scenario, or to go overboard on avoiding germs.
Food and Sleep
As a parent, I’ve learned that most of my kids’ behavioral problems are often directly related to either a lack of sleep or too much sugar (or, God forbid, both!)
While most (including me!) of us are far from perfect, providing a healthy, well-balanced diet–at least most of the time–is one of the most important things we can do for our kids! Children, left to their own devices, won’t always choose the right foods, which means that as parents, it is our job to not give in to the demands. (If you have picky eaters, check out this post on How I Got My Kids to Eat Their Vegetables.)
Furthermore, most kids need 10-12 hours of sleep every night, especially during growth spurts, and if they are not getting that much, it is time for them to start going to bed earlier or getting up later.
Kids are eager to please. They thrive not just on positive reinforcement, praise and acknowledgement, but on actually accomplishing something of value.. Positive reinforcement is incredibly important, but it is just as important to give your child opportunities to excel, to work, and to contribute to the family. Make your expectations clear, then find creative ways to acknowledge genuine success.
I’ve noticed people often praise their little girls by complimenting them on their looks. You’re so pretty! –or– You have a beautiful smile! While that is all fine and good, I think it’s also important we praise our kids for the things that they DO, like tackling a problem or being creative. If my girls are being girly, I’ll compliment them on how they styled their outfit or hair, rather than only complimenting the outfit itself.
Achievements don’t need to be incentivized by food or toys. Teaching your children to be proud of a job well-done is a much more powerful reinforcement tool. Better yet, it helps kids gain confidence without adding additional “stuff” to your household.
I’m no helicopter parent. Jumping at every request and keeping kids in a bubble? No thank you. It’s exhausting and unnecessary, not to mention counter-productive when it comes to reinforcing happiness and good behavior.
Even so, kids of all ages (babies, children and even teens) NEED touch and affection. Human contact is one of our most basic needs and requirements. Mothers of premature babies are often encouraged to help babies thrive with skin-on-skin contact and studies show that children who are touched, held, cuddled and loved are happier and more likely to thrive.
Never underestimate the power of a hug or a few minutes of cuddle time. I even find that a hand on their arm or shoulder while I am talking helps my girls pay attention to the message and focus more on what I’m trying to say.
In the social media age, there’s a lot of talk about being connected, but for a kid (and adults), real LIVE connections are vital to social and emotional development. Social interaction helps kids learn about boundaries, feelings and how to have relationships as they grow into adulthood.
It’s not just interacting with other kids that’s important either–kids need to be taught how to speak and interact with adults in a polite and friendly way. Before we go anywhere, my husband and I always give our girls a two minute pep talk, reminding them that our expectation of them is to look people in the eye, to speak loudly and clearly, and to use “sir” and “ma’am.” We firmly believe that helping them think about social niceties and relationship-building at an early age provides lifelong skills that will foster healthy connections into adulthood.
While it’s okay to be observant, it’s not a good idea to become too overbearing. Encourage your kid (especially if they’re a bit older) to work out their own battles. Even disagreements between kids build social problem-solving skills and an understanding of group dynamics. It can be painful to see your child sad or feel rejected, but it’s a great opportunity to talk through the issue and provide advice and coping skills.
Allowing our kids to do things for themselves, and to make mistakes is hard sometimes, but so incredibly important! It allows them to learn that actions have consequences, and also gives them the opportunity to correct their own mistakes, and to triumph over failure.
Remember the first time you went to the mall alone or the first time you successfully made cookies without any help? These big steps in growth and development are so important. You might even be a little surprised at how well your kids rise to the occasion of responsibility.
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Gratitude breeds happiness. Yet, appreciation and gratitude can be a tricky concept for children to grasp. We need to model gratitude in our own lives for our kids. One activity I’ve found to be very effective is to encourage my girls to list what they’re thankful for, right at that moment.
This reflection can turn around a bad mood and can really be enlightening and uplifting. Help your kids write thank you cards and reinforce the habit of saying please and thank you when making a request. Acknowledging all the good things in life can help children think outside of themselves and view the bigger picture.
Now, most kids would say they HATE bedtime or cleaning their room or being told ‘NO’…but guess what? All kids need and crave limits. Not only do these things build important life skills, but they allow kids to feel cared for and loved. My husband often tells my girls, “my job is not to be your friend, it is to make you a good grownup.”
Keeping a consistent schedule with clear expectations works wonders for our family. Our girls know what to expect and so do we! Setting appropriate limits not only gives you peace of mind as a parent, but also helps your child feel safe and secure. Kids with limits can feel free to explore the world more fully within those boundaries, because they don’t have to worry about what’s on the outside.
Routine is not only comforting, but consistency gives kids something to rely on and fall back on. When there’s time set up to complete a homework assignment or our kids know that tomorrow they’ll return to the same friends at school, they feel more secure and less anxious.
Just like adults, children love creative pursuits. Crafts and art projects help build on concepts and ideas from school. They provide kids with an escape and a chance to pretend and try on different identities and simply “play.”
I find that exploring new experiences with my girls is one of the best parts of being a mom. I just love to see my kids learn, create and experience new things. When we give our kids the tools they need to get creative and allow them to explore their imaginations to the fullest, their full potential comes alive. This might mean less time in front of the television and more time with books and paper, glue, scissors and clay.
I think it’s important to allow kids the freedom to try new pursuits and find the things they love (and let go of the things they don’t). If you have to force your child to go to piano lessons or art class, then maybe it’s just not for them. Provide a variety of options and they’ll eventually find an activity that fits their aptitude and makes their heart sing!
Happy parents generally have happy kids. We often, especially as moms, overlook our own interests and pursuits in favor of meeting our children’s needs, but you know what? A mom that’s confident, relaxed and happy serves as a great example for her children. (And trust me, I know it’s NOT always easy!)
Give yourself time to pursue the things you love and find fulfilling. Simplify your life, practice gratitude, and make your activities meaningful and joyful. Your children will benefit from your presence. Even if your time is stretched a little thin or if you have to juggle parenting with your spouse, finding time to keep your needs met will not only strengthen your marriage, but is a key factor in the happiness of your family overall.
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Of course you may have already noticed that there are a few things that didn’t make this list. Here are two things your kids DON’T need to be happy:
It’s no secret that I firmly believe in keeping things clutter-free! It’s why I don’t advocate buying more toys, and in fact, it’s the now somewhat infamous reason I took my kids toys away. We discovered firsthand that not only did more stuff make our kids less happy, it was becoming a source of anxiety and conflict for our kids.
Since getting rid paring down the amount of stuff in their lives, we’ ve seen a huge transition in not only the way my children think but the way they experience happiness. I see a renewed zest for creativity. There’s less selfish behavior, fewer tantrums and fewer frustrations.
We all know those families–the ones who spend every spare moment in the car, running from one activity, sporting event, and obligation to the next. While a few activities can be beneficial, and even healthy, more is not always better. Make sure you are giving your kids enough free time to just be kids!