Who doesn’t want their children to be happy? The truth is that though we might not think about it on a daily basis, parents’ main goal for their children is that they be happy. Success, fame, and beauty pales in comparison to happiness when parents think about what they want for their children. But, how do you “instill” happiness. It’s easy to understand how to make your child “be” something, but how can you help your child feel something? Well, according to groundbreaking psychologist Mikaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Happiness is not something that happens to people but something that they make happen.” How can you make that happen? Or, rather, can you help your children make their own happiness happen?
Before we get into the details of how to help your children learn how to create their own happiness, I want to quote Dr. Edward Hallowell from his book The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. We might not always agree with it, but here is what Dr. Hallowell has to say about parent happiness:
There is a point that many parenting books miss: children do more for us than we do for them. The most important advice in any parenting book ought to be this: Enjoy your children. Learn from your children, listen to what they have to say, play with them when you can, let them activate those parts of you that had already started to go dead before they were born, and let those parts of you energize your work, your friendships, your spiritual life, every part of your life that there is.
“What?!” you might scream, “You say my children do more for me that I do for them? My children do nothing! I do everything. They eat and make clothes dirty… I cook and wash dirty clothes and pay for the electricity… How can you possibly say that they do more for me than I do for them?!”
But after you’ve finished blowing off steam, and after your children have gone to bed or grown up and moved away, you know I am right… For all we provide for them, look what our children give us: Hope. Love. Energy. Purpose. Laughter. Sweet sorrow. Meaning. A chance to be a hero. A chance to love as we never knew we could love. A chance to worry more about someone else than about ourselves. A chance to make a life.
How can we become heroic parents? By helping our children learn how to create happiness in their own lives. Later, in his book, Dr. Hallowell explains that there are five steps that parents can take in order to learn how to create and sustain joy on their own.
- Connections. The sense of being rooted, both physically and emotionally is confidence building and uplifting for children. Children need to experience unconditional love from their parents – luckily this part of the connections section is easy! In addition, feeling part of a community, a member of a school, and taking care of family pets can be beneficial. All of these elements make children feel that they are part of something larger and give them a foundation of security.
- Play. Your children need to feel like children when they play. Instead of programming their play at all times and scheduling multiple activities, your children should be able to engage in open-ended play. Encourage them to use their imagination and invent scenarios. This will force them to solve “problems” by themselves. When they solve problems together or with their friends or siblings, they discover their own talents and resources. This builds confidence and self-esteem.
- Practice. Sometimes, your children are going to fail. Dr. Wendy Mogel, in her book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teaching to Raise Self-Reliant Children, writes about the importance of fear and failure in parenting:
Parents’ urge to overprotect their children is based on fear – fear of strangers, the street. Fear of the child’s not being invited to the right parties or accepted by the right schools… Real protection means teaching children to manage risks on their own, not shielding them from every hazard… Children need an opportunity to learn about the “wave-pattern” of emotions. If parents rush in to rescue them from distress, children don’t get an opportunity to learn that they can suffer and recover on their own.
Children who fail, should be encouraged to practice and get better. Therefore, encourage your child to stick to something even if it is hard – that will help build resilience. Their success in the long-term will also give them a sense of accomplishment.
- Mastery. Once your child finds a strength, help him master that skill. This mastery can be related to flying kites, hitting a baseball, or tying their shoes. Whatever the skill, once it is mastered, children will feel motivated to tackle new challenges. This allows them to feel like they can take on anything – no matter how difficult.
- Recognition. When you, your children’s teachers or friends let them know that they did a good job, they understand once again that they are part of something that is larger than they are. This links back to step #1 (connections) in which they feel secure and connected to a larger community. When children feel that their actions affect their family, classmates, and the wider community, they are more likely to act morally in the future. This in turn will make them feel good about themselves.
The good news: each step naturally leads into the next. So, just start out loving your children unconditionally and helping them figure out how to play. The rest will come. So, as Dr. Hallowell would suggest, go out and play. You won’t regret it.