Raising Happy Children

There is a lot of talk these days about how to be happy.  The internet is flooded with TED talks and other articles from experts professing the secret sauce to happiness.  But, what do our children need to be happy, and how does that differ from what we need?

Child holding leaves

A young child under six years of age needs to build trust and confidence in both their physical environment and in the way adults act around them.  We may perceive that young children behave erratically and impulsively, but really these children crave routine and order.  There needs to be consistency both from the reactions and responses of the adult (meaning clear, consistent rules and boundaries) and in the daily routine that the child can depend on in order for the child to feel secure and have a sense of well-being.  The child feels most successful when he or she can anticipate an outcome.  This allows for a sense of peace and helps to alleviate anxiety.  Anxiety in a three year old?  Yes, believe it or not, I have worked with some very young children who were going through some very big anxieties, and this was usually due to big changes that were difficult for them to cope with.  Big changes that can cause anxiety in a young child include: moving into a new home, parents separation/divorce, birth of a sibling, experiencing a natural disaster, fighting between parents, parent exhibiting stress and worry in front of the child.  The outcome of a child's emotional reaction is largely based on how the adult reacts.  When children are experiencing frustration or anxiety as a result of external sources (their environment or the adults around them) the child will often react by exhibiting challenging behaviors.

How we can help children develop into happy, well-balanced individuals

The children watch and listen very closely to facial expressions, language and tones coming from the adult caregivers around them.  The child needs stability from those adults in order to build trust and feel secure.  A great example of this comes from a dear friend of mine.  One of my good friends is partially disabled and has a three year old and a one year old.  Some days, she wakes up in the morning and finds that she cannot walk, go to the bathroom unassisted, or even hold a fork.  On those days, she remembers to be consistent and matter-of-fact about it with her children.  “Sometimes mom’s legs don’t work” is just a common everyday occurrence in their household.  If she showed huge frustration or emotional duress because of her predicament, this would cause her children to feel emotional stress.  It is hard, no doubt, to hold back one’s emotions and remain calm in front of your children.  Science shows that children under six are extremely sensitive to the emotions they see us exhibit, and we really do need to check ourselves and take a look at how we are acting (or reacting) in front of them.

Meet your own needs first for self-care and happiness

Parenting is one of the hardest things on earth and also one of the most rewarding, and we can only be good parents if we are meeting our own needs for self-care and happiness.  Make sure you give yourself recovery time, whether than involves a spa day, bike ride, fitness class, reading a book, or spiritual routine.  It can be hard to think of your own needs first, because we are hard-wired to put our children's needs first.  But, by making sure you are taking care of your own mental and physical health and creating a good work/life balance, you are actually meeting your child's most primary need- the need for a happy, emotionally healthy adult to care for them.

Another key to children’s happiness is our acceptance of where they are at.  To accept a child is to recognize your child’s potential and know what his or her needs are so you can help meet them.  Often, when young children misbehave (in Montessori, we call it deviating from their natural course of behavior) it is because there is some need that is not being met.  As adults, we need to collaborate with children on their development.  We need to observe objectively what the needs of the child are and figure out how to meet them.  For example, if your child is drawing on the wall of their bedroom, they are not being 'bad'.  It is there way of saying, "I have a need to draw".  We can meet that child's need by directing that child to a more appropriate place to draw- "I see you have a need to draw.  Here is a table with some paper that you can draw on, and when you are finished, we can clean the wall together."

I once worked at a school where the children kept digging up the garden.  The teachers felt very frustrated, “We keep telling the children not to dig where the snap peas and carrots are planted, and they keep uprooting the poor plants”.  Our principal thought for a moment and said, “These children have a need to dig.  Their need is not being met.  We need to create a garden box that is just full of dirt and so the children can dig.”  We created a digging box and it solved the problem!  These children were not misbehaving, they simply needed to have their need to dig met.

Children also need a sense of belonging in the family.  As adults, we need to understand that the child is a capable being and wants to contribute to the family.  Many adults do not including their child in daily tasks because it takes too long.  Slow down and take the time to teach your child how to fold laundry with you, prepare meals, and clean up.  Your child will not see these as chores, but a chance to bond with their parent and feel like a contributing member of the family.

Becoming a parent is a transformative experience, in that it transforms us into a capable care-giver for a very precious living thing.  It requires us to change who we are and how we behave.  We must strive to become a better human at each moment, so we can help our children grow into wonderful, happy humans. 

Peace in the child starts by us discovering our own inner peace.  It is important as adults to remember to take time to reflect on our lives and our need for balance.  How can you possibly raise a happy child if you yourself are not happy? 

Happiness vs. Joy

I use the word happy a lot in this article, because it is a more relatable word, but I do want to point out something I learned from Desmond Tutu and the Dali Lama when I read The Book of Joy: Happiness is often a circumstantial, in the moment emotional reaction.  For example, getting to eat ice cream may make your child happy.  Joy, on the other hand, is something we can carry within us despite our external situations.  For example, can your child still be joyful when they are waiting in a long line at the grocery store?  The real end goal here is actually not happiness, but true joy. 

How do we know it’s working?

How do we know that this is all working well and our children are joyful?  If our attitude and the way we act and react around our children is conducive to our child’s joyfulness, we will see a child who is taking initiative, being independent, and building confidence.  Physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual independence will let us know that the child is healthy and in balance. 

I will be sharing more on joyful parenting!  Please check back soon, or subscribe to my newsletter and receive helpful articles tailored to you!