Making children happy
It's the job of parents to help their children find happiness, but not to overprotect them from reality, writes Rachel Lewis
It's natural to want our children to be witty, intelligent, superior in sports and a creative genius, but most parents agree that, above all, they want their child to be happy.
Indeed, Dr Jim Taylor, the author of Positive Pushing: How to Raise a Successful and Happy Child (Hyperion, 2003) says: "One of the most frequent comments I get from parents is 'I just want my kid to be happy'. Though an admirable and common objective, happiness is one of the most neglected family values in the 21st century. Few parents grasp the essential meaning of happiness for their children and fewer still understand how they can help their children to find it."
Taylor believes that by understanding how happiness develops, we can help our children find true happiness. "The real causes of happiness are all within your children's control so they can actively do things that foster their own happiness," he says.
So, what does a happy child "look" like? "They have good self-esteem, know how to express their feelings and listen to others, they're confident enough to be creative, can be assertive, have fun and build strong relationships," says Gaynor Sbuttoni, an educational psychologist.
The experts agree that it's a parent's job to equip our children with the skills they need to have a happy life. It sounds like a formidable task, but fortunately we have years to work on it.
Ironically, the first mistake many of us make is trying to ensure that our children are happy all of the time. "If we protect them too much from emotional pain they won't know how to deal with it when it arises, leaving them feeling overpowered and insecure," says Sbuttoni.
"If your child has cross words with another child at school, don't immediately take the situation out of your child's hands by ringing the other parent to deal with it. Instead, acknowledge how your child feels, ask how they dealt with the situation and discuss how they could respond next time."
By doing so, you will empower your child and help them to feel like they can deal with difficult situations in the future.
Encouraging your child to be independent in such a way will also boost their self-esteem. "It's important not to take the struggle out of certain situations," advises Sbuttoni. "If your child is finding it hard to tie his shoelaces, don't take over, it will make him feel inadequate. Instead, encourage and guide him so that he will gain a sense of capability and self-esteem."
While most of us are guilty of being overly helpful and overprotective at times, this kind of behaviour will backfire in the long run.
Of course, this doesn't mean you should act like you don't care. Praise is essential to a child's emotional wellbeing, but it needs to be delivered in the right way. The words "that's brilliant" will probably wash over them, but if you give them a descriptive compliment it will carry much more power, for example, "I really liked the colours you used in that picture". While you can be heavy-handed with the compliments, make sure you lay off the insults. "Never be sarcastic with your child, use insulting comments, or call names: it's destructive and will erode their self-esteem," warns Sbuttoni.
As parents, we have the dubious honour of acting as role models for happiness and if we have a glass-half-full approach to life, they probably will too.
"Last week my son announced that it was probably going to rain tomorrow, which meant he wouldn't be able to have his football party and no one would want to be friends with him anymore," says Claire Drury, 28, a marketing executive in the UK. "I was shocked and realised that I needed to reassess my attitude to life, or at least stop verbalising it."
None of us is perfect, but that doesn't mean our children have to be negatively affected. And that rule applies even if life takes a wrong turn. Disease, divorce and disaster may strike, but they're not the blueprint for an unhappy child.
British-born Ally Pace, 36, a freelance copywriter who lives in Dubai says: "My 12-year-old stepson, Keagan, lives in South Africa with his mother, stepfather and new sister. My husband and I have fostered a strong relationship with Keagan's mother and her husband, to the extent that I stay with them when I travel alone to South Africa. My stepson loves the fact that both families get on so well, and this is bound to help him maintain a positive attitude to marriage and family as he grows up."
Strong relationships are often the key to happiness and if you can maintain good communication, even in difficult circumstances, your child will benefit greatly.
A child's life is all about new experiences, be it good or bad. Joining a ballet class for the first time, starting school, going on holiday, moving house and so on. Talking through new situations will help prepare them and allay anxieties. Find out what they are most concerned about and discuss what they can do to make things easier. By teaching your child the skills to deal with life, you will give them the best chance of happiness.
Published: August 9, 2011 04:00 AM