What Do We Mean By ‘A Happy Child’?
There is nothing like the pure sound of children’s laughter! It is contagious and joyful – one of the most beautifully musical sounds ever! To me, the epitome of happy children is spontaneous laughter, smiles, free movement, and singing – a positive and carefree existence! This notion of a childhood being free and happy is, of course, ideal. Nonetheless, I’m sure most would desire exactly this for the kids they care about. On a deeper level, I suspect this is what we crave for our own inner child too. The whole concept of a happy and free child is, clearly, much more than laughter and a positive demeanor. From my experience working with children ( teaching, music therapy, and observing my own ), I have noticed one of the truest indicators of a happy child is the ability to maintain a generally positive mindset about themselves and what they can do. It is an overall positive self-regard. This seems to spill over into the ability to show empathy (in varying amounts) to others. This ‘positive self-regard’ mindset also appears to support creativity and intelligence.
So, what can we, as care-givers and parents, do to foster a mindset of ‘positive self-regard’ in our kids? How can we support our children to create their own happiness? What are the secrets to happy kids?
What You Need to Know to Create Happy Kids:
Research-based evidence from psychology, and allied fields, supports the following ways of fostering happiness in our kids:
- Take care of the basic requirements of good physical health for your and your kids – Sleep, Nutrition, Exercise
- Be responsible for your own happiness. Model this to your kids and teach them by your example that they have the power to create their own happiness.
- Cultivate a growth mindset in yourself and your kids.
- Be grateful and appreciate what you have.
Let’s discuss each one of these deceptively simple strategies further!
Back to Basics – Physical Health
Dr Tim Sharp (Founder of The Happiness Institute/Positive Psychology) makes a point that meeting the basic requirements of good physical health is a fundamentally important – and easily underestimated – tenet of happiness. Getting adequate sleep, regular exercise, having enough time to roam around in nature, and eating fresh nutritious food is just so important to a child’s health and happiness! (1) These fundamentals mean a healthy body and a healthy mind, one that can more easily deal with life’s challenges.
It can, admittedly, be a real challenge, within the fast-paced life of school, home-school, work, family commitments etc, to include time for adequate food preparation and sleep…..let alone exercise and roaming freely in nature! However (and I am speaking directly to myself also!); I implore you to re-think your priorities if any of these basic requirements are being squeezed out of your and your children’s lives! I know life is not always simple, and that there can be emergencies and other times when it is practically impossible to slow down and address these fundamentals. But when you can do it, it is worth rethinking what is really necessary for a healthy and happy life. Health is a basic foundation of happiness. It is too important to put on the back-burner!
Be Responsible for Your Own Happiness!
Being responsible for my happiness is very much a part of my Journey, a journey I am both challenged and honoured to share with my children. When kids observe adults in their lives taking positive action to be happy, they receive subconscious messages that it is ok, and actually important for them to take care of their own happiness.
I want to impart to my children – before they become adults – that no one else on this earth is responsible for them or their happiness except for THEM. There is so much freedom, as well as responsibility, in this realisation! It is this value that challenges me every day. We are completely responsible for own happiness. At the end of our lives there is no one else who will answer for us except us. I don’t think of this often, but find it helpful every now and again to feel its full realisation. It definitely provides clarity on what is important and what is not!
Bob Murray (2) discovered that ‘Happy parents are likely to have happy kids, while children of depressed parents suffer twice the average rate of depression.’ This makes sense when we realise that we are also energy beings and our energy levels affect those around us, our children included (This works in reverse too, as I’m sure you have noticed!) !
In addition to this powerful energetic effect, prioritising time for our own happiness means we communicate clearly to our kids that we value ourselves and that we value happiness! This type of role modelling is absolutely powerful and effective! So, definitely take time for yourself to rest, exercise, and eat healthy food. Make time for self-development. Make time for enjoyable activities. It is beneficial for your children to see you living out your values. Demonstrating responsibility for your own happiness sends powerful messages to your kids. It is one of the most effective ways to encourage a mindset of happiness in your children.
Another key understanding is that we cannot actually CONTROL the happiness of our kids. Apart from providing a nurturing physical and emotional environment, and providing a role-model, we can’t get inside or control our kids’ minds. Yes, it can be healthy to take a step back and realise that our kids are not us – they are very much their own persons! This is not always easy when we have become so attached to them! Sometimes we can take too much responsibility for our kids, particularly as they grow up. At some point our children need to realise that they are going to, eventually, have to take full responsibility for their happiness… and more than that… that they have the POWER, to do this.
In fact, understanding this one point alone – that THEY have the power – is the secret to a potential life of happiness in our children.
Cultivate a ‘Growth Mindset’
In 2006 Carol Dweck introduced her terminology of the ‘Growth Mindset’ versus the ‘Fixed Mindset’ in her book, ‘ Mindset. The New Psychology of Success’ (3). Since then, educational institutions, psychologists,professionals and care-givers have embraced these terms and their application. The concept of a ‘growth mindset’ is that focussing on the ‘process’ of a task, rather than the ‘outcome’ produces the motivation and ability to grow, learn, and flourish. This contrasts with focussing on ‘outcomes’ , which produces a ‘fixed mindset’, or believing your abilities are ‘fixed’. People who have a ‘fixed mindset’ are less likely to flourish and be happy.
As reported in ABC News ‘Why Praise Can Be Bad For Kids’ (4), Murphy and Allen discuss Carol Dweck’s groundbreaking research:
Two groups of children from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds were given an IQ test. The first group were told they did well and that they were smart! The second group were also told they did well, but that they must have put in a lot of effort to do so. Both groups were then asked if they wanted to go ahead and do another, slightly more challenging test. The kids who were praised for being smart were all hesitant to go ahead with further testing. Those who were praised for their efforts showed much more enthusiasm. Also, on this final test, the group praised for their efforts actually scored better than the group praised for being smart.
Praising the efforts of children is referred to, by Dweck, as ‘process praise’. It is a powerful way to engage kids in their own growth and learning, increasing self-efficacy and self-esteem. Carol Dweck suggests teaching children that they can actually grow neurons in their brain by using effort and believing they can improve. She was able to demonstrate that when kids understood this idea of effort and difficulty creating new and stronger connections in their brains, that is when they actually grew and increased their intelligence. A major plus to focussing on ‘process praise’ is that the concept of failure tends to change from negative to a more positive one. In fact, sometimes the term ‘failure’ is not even relevant, as there is really only the understanding that learning and growth is taking place!!
I have been incorporating Dweck’s concepts of ‘process praise’ to encourage a mindset of growth and positive self-regard in myself and my children. It is, overall, a much healthier way to build self-respect and confidence than using labels like ‘smart’ and ‘intelligent’ etc. I don’t feel it is damaging to blurt out how smart and wonderful our kids are, haha! However, it makes a difference when you focus mainly on their efforts and the process of their learning. The key is to direct your praise toward something within the child’s control. The whole shift of focussing on our kids’ efforts and process encourages self-empowerment and a positive self-regard mindset. That is our objective!
Gratitude…. or Appreciating What You Have
According to the world’s foremost scientific expert on gratitude, Robert Emmons, ‘Gratitude is an affirmation of goodness’. He concludes that ‘gratitude heals, energises and transforms lives’ (5).
More specifically, Layous and Lyubominsky’s research (6) found that gratitude provides the following benefits in children (contingent on their developmental readiness):
- Increases feelings of well-being
- Reduces depression
- Results in fewer aggressive behaviours
- Results in less substance abuse
- Promotes more pro-social behaviours
- Promotes positive relationships
Layous and Lyubominsky suggest that teaching children how gratitude actually works (that is, the process of understanding what the recipient of the gratitude goes through (e.g. in choosing to help, adding value, the cost to them etc), may help the child internalise the importance of gratitude, thereby promoting intrinsic motivation to express gratitude. Gratitude really is a transformational tool for both our children and ourselves!
Indeed, repeated thoughts and feelings of gratitude have been shown to change the structure of the brain. Arjun Walia discusses this in his article, ‘Scientists Show How Gratitude Literally Alters the Human Heart and Molecular Structure of the Brain’ (7). He discusses further how practising gratitude can be an effective tool in overcoming anxiety and depression. It is the practise of gratitude that turns this ‘tool’ into a habit. When gratitude becomes a habit, it ceases to become such an ‘effort’ and then forms part of who we ARE in this world. That really is life-changing!!
This gratitude ‘habit’ is exactly what I want to impart to my kids! I like to verbalise, often, what I appreciate about them and their actions. We talk about the power of appreciation/gratitude, and frequently verbalise what we are happy about throughout the day.
Unfortunately, as a child, I was often reminded to ‘just be grateful for what you have’, in response to my anxieties. It left me with the impression that my ‘problems’ were trivial, and by default, I was not important enough to listen to. The term ‘grateful’; therefore, had a shallow and negative connotation. Before I was able to remove this unhelpful programming around gratitude, I found it useful to use the term ‘appreciate’ or ‘thankful’ as a substitute for ‘grateful’! Even now it seems easier, in a challenging situation, to ‘appreciate’ something first. This term can feel more neutral and easier to align with than ‘thankful’ or ‘grateful’.
What I have noticed about gratitude is that it brings you fully into the present moment. It can quickly move you out of the past or future and enable you to be more ‘alive’ in the ‘Now’ moment. This brings a freedom and happiness all of its own. Gratitude is the ‘secret’ to happiness that many will miss because they dismiss its power!
These ‘secrets to happy kids’ seem obvious in many ways, and are so simple that many underestimate and disregard their effectiveness. Like all ‘secrets’, the power lies in their consistent application. Not difficult as such; however, effort and consistency – especially when it comes to the habits of your lifestyle and your mind – can be challenging. On the upside – like anything worthwhile – when you set your mind to changing these habits and follow through with your daily efforts, it is easier than you think!!
I hope you have gained some inspiration to empower yourself and consequently your children (whether yours, or those in your care) to make choices leading to a positive and happy mindset! The ability to choose to be happy alters your life in amazing ways!
Warm wishes to you and yours!
(3) Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Carol S. Dweck. Random House Publishing Group. 2006. 1588365239
ABC News ‘Why Praise Can Be Bad For Kids’
(6) School Psychology Review, 2014, Volume 43, No 2.
(7) Collective Evolution. Arjun Walia. Pub. Feb 14 2019 ‘Scientists Show How Gratitude Literally Alters The Human Heart and Molecular Structure of the Brain’
(8) The Wall Street Journal