7 Happiness Tools We Can Give Our Children

Our second daughter started college last fall. She’s an old soul who’s always strummed to her own beat, so it wasn’t surprising that she’d found high school restrictive and uninspiring, both academically and socially. But, as we’d hoped, college has been a different story. She’s thriving in the freer, more diverse atmosphere, more fulfilled and content than she’s been in years.

Recently, while reflecting on her successful transition, relieved and deeply grateful, my thoughts drifted to our power as parents (or lack thereof) over our children’s happiness.

When our kids are babies, we affect their happiness almost completely by being attuned and responsive to their needs and surrounding them with love and enrichment. Over time, our power gradually diminishes as children find happiness through relationships with peers and teachers, interests and hobbies, activities, and achievements. By the time our kids hit adolescence, our ability to flip the happy switch is very limited. By college, it’s nonexistent, which can be agonizing. I know of no more powerless experience than witnessing the anguish of my teenager suffering through heartbreak… with the possible exception of riding shotgun while she learned to navigate an interstate fast lane.

Yet, though we may be powerless in the moment, our influence as parents remains massive, because for happiness to be genuine and resilient, it must be reflective of happiness within, and that “within” is shaped by the quality of life our children experienced with us in those first years.

Here are some “happiness within” tools we can give our children:

1. Comfort in their skin

In my parent/infant and toddler classes, the parents and I often note how comfortable the children seem “in their skin.” Our children can retain this healthy sense and acceptance of self — physically and emotionally — if we are careful about the messages we send. Children receive messages primarily through our actions. Our words matter, too, because from birth they are listening to all the language in their environment, not just the words that are directed their way, and learning about their place in the world.

Communicating with, touching, and holding babies and toddlers in a respectful manner teaches them that they are worthy.

Inviting them to participate fully in eating, bathing, and diaper changes shows them that they are able.

Respectful boundaries give children the consistent assurance they are in a safe nest with gentle, stable, caring leaders.

Accepting our children’s full range of emotions, especially the difficult ones, is one of the most profound ways to say: “I love you. Every part of you is okay with me.”

Allowing a child to self-direct play and motor development teaches her that we not only trust but also take great interest in her self-chosen activities and in the person we see unfolding. We value even the youngest child’s choices rather than directing her toward ours (and then getting disappointed if she doesn’t seem focused or interested).

We like our children, we really like them, as is. We allow them to belong to themselves.

Comfort in one’s skin doesn’t inoculate children against pain and suffering. That’s life. But when we are settled and whole at our core, we don’t stay down for long.

2. Character

Scientific studies show what many of us have already noticed or would have guessed: Generosity makes us happier. Kindness not only counts, it brightens the spirit. Honesty attracts honesty and also lessens the likelihood we’ll get into trouble. Self-discipline makes life easier and more manageable. And so on.

Our character affects the way we’re perceived by others and informs our important life choices, like the jobs and careers we choose and the people we’re drawn to. As the saying goes, “it takes one to know one.” (Though I’m not sure that’s meant to be encouraging).

Children develop character primarily through our modeling. They also need behavior boundaries, but even then the actions and language we model will always trump what we aim to teach. For example, angrily forcing children to “share,” say “sorry,” “thank you,” or “be gentle” teaches the exact opposite of generosity, compassion, gratitude, and gentleness.

There will probably never be a better incentive to smooth out our own rough edges than becoming a parent. We needn’t worry if we can’t always rise to the occasion – we are not saints — but humble apologies are great modeling as well.

3. Authenticity, inner-directedness, intrinsic motivation

These are the vital channels through which our children will experience “flow,” spirituality, and meaning in their lives, discover their passions and their place in the world.

Our babies already have the goods. Authenticity, inner-directedness, and intrinsic motivation are what make babies, toddlers, and preschoolers so categorically captivating. Born connected to their spirit selves, their instinct to “follow their heart” remains strong. So, it isn’t our job to instill these traits in children so much as to do our best not to rip them away by, for example:

  • Overpraising and managing behavior with rewards. (Encourages extrinsic motivation)
  • Directing children toward play and learning activities that reflect our own interests, rather than supporting theirs. (Inner-directedness is devalued and unsupported)
  • Placing a high value on appearance and image. Urging young children to affect social graces prematurely and scolding or punishing them if they don’t. (Discourages authenticity)

4. Social intelligence

The ability to share ourselves with others and experience a sense of belonging is essential to happiness. How successfully our children navigate their peer society and form rewarding relationships is largely dependent on their relationship with us, their most powerful role models. If we are honest, direct, respectful, and loving with them from the beginning, these characteristics will become theirs.

Babies and toddlers also benefit greatly from regular opportunities to interact with their peers in a safe environment. Children learn social skills organically through play and, especially, experimentation. “Hmm, what will that girl do if I crawl over there and grab her shirt?” Presumably “that girl” will object, but the interaction that ensues – closely monitored and supervised by the caregiver – is the critical learning process that becomes the basis for social intelligence. (For more, please check out 4 Best Ways to Raise Kids With Social Intelligence.)

5. Learning skills

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
― Mahatma Gandhi

The happiest adults have open, curious minds. Children are born curious explorers. If left to themselves with minimal sensory distractions (like TV!), babies can and will entertain themselves with the simplest objects. (HERE‘s a video that demonstrates.) They will investigate every possibility of a simple piece of cloth. By allowing them the time and space to independently pursue and satisfy this innate curiosity, they are developing focus and attention span, and their natural love of learning. The secret to nourishing these precious skills is to let children choose and direct their learning as much as possible, especially in the early years when they are still learning how to learn.

“It is not that I’m so smart. But I stay with the questions much longer.”
― Albert Einstein

6. Resilience

It is my belief that at the base of true happiness are all the difficult, uncomfortable, even devastating feelings we’ve experienced and survived. Helping children to face and express these feelings (when it’s soooo tempting to try to placate or avoid them altogether), provides them the eternal sense that hard times really do pass. Supporting children to express their unpleasant feelings, even those directed at us (as many of them seem to be in the early years), helps to normalize life’s “downs.” The ups are easy to like, but if we can feel accepting enough of the downs, we’ve got it made.

Babies’ and toddlers’ lives are full of striving, struggle, disappointments, and (eventually) success.  Rolling over, mastering digits, crawling, climbing – these are all skill sets that are developed through trial and error. Lots of errors. But resiliency is a muscle that gets stronger with use. Children will continue to strive, and they will eventually succeed. By allowing natural developmental processes to take place with minimal interference – by allowing our children to succeed – they gain a foundation of self-confidence that can last throughout their lives.

  1. Love

Last and certainly not least, but the most obvious: We show children what love is. Ideally, it is unconditional, patient, forgiving and, like each of us (and life itself), perfectly imperfect.

I share more about this respectful approach in

Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting


(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)


Please share your comments and questions. I read them all and respond to as many as time will allow.

  1. This was a great post! It reminded me of Kahlil Gibran’s poem “On Children.” Not sure if you’ve read it but it really resonates with me when thinking about RIE. BTW, I bought and really enjoyed your book, Elevating Childcare! 🙂 You are an inspiration.

    On Children
    Kahlil Gibran

    Your children are not your children.
    They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
    They come through you but not from you,
    And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.

    You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
    For they have their own thoughts.
    You may house their bodies but not their souls,
    For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow,
    which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
    You may strive to be like them,
    but seek not to make them like you.
    For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.

    You are the bows from which your children
    as living arrows are sent forth.
    The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
    and He bends you with His might
    that His arrows may go swift and far.
    Let your bending in the archer’s hand be for gladness;
    For even as He loves the arrow that flies,
    so He loves also the bow that is stable.

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Lina! And for sharing one of my favorite poems by Kahil Gibran.

      1. Post and poem…Wow..simply wow.

    2. Vicki Burgess says:

      Admire Kahlil Gibran too, and agree, this poem resonates with RIE!

  2. Such important points! My kids are younger, but empowering them and equipping them with coping tools is what I put the most emphasis on. I agree wholeheartedly with your list.

  3. Needed this today, thank you!

  4. Great conclusion: “We show children what love is” – even if we don’t always love perfectly, it should definitely be a top priority.

  5. Another amazing post Janet.

    I’m curious to know, as you said “she’d found high school restrictive and uninspiring” if you would advocate for a different type of high school experience. i know the options out there are limited, particularly for older grades. But things are changing and i see other options opening up, everything from schools like manzanita in the palisades to unschooling. do you think she would have been better served? i know private schools in LA are upward of 35K and so if a more classic school environment is too restrictive and uninspiring would you recommend looking elsewhere or do you see it for some kids like your daughter as a necessary but not ideal step towards college which is providing a much richer, more self-directed experience?

    always interested in your insights!

    thank u!

    1. Just weighing in that I’m curious to hear thoughts on this, too! My two siblings and I were unschooled all the way until college (and each of us went on to various advanced degrees, too) and now that I have a toddler of my own with whom I’m using RIE to the best of my knowledge and abilities, I find it impossible to imagine plunking her into any institutional environment. I am trying not to restrict my outlook to too narrow a view.

    2. Thanks, Jennifer! I think it’s just about knowing your children and doing your best. We were blessed to have options and she tried three(!) of them during high school, including schooling at home. She has always been a stellar student, so that wasn’t an issue, but her happiness was/is very important to us.

      She ended up at a small private school that prides itself on offering “individualized” education, but required us to drive her 45 minutes each way(!). The logistics took their toll on all of us. Now, at college, she walks through a gorgeous parklike campus to all her classes, gets treated like an adult and doesn’t have to take courses that don’t interest her.

      I honestly don’t believe there was a high school situation she wouldn’t have perceived as something to “get through”. She’s a 17 year old freshman and her friend group at college consists mostly of seniors. She’s an wonderfully unusual kid.

      1. Thanks for that. Very interesting. I’m so curious to know how we’ll approach junior high and high school. It makes me so uneasy. I’m glad she’s enjoying college.

        On a totally different note, I wish your site offered the feature that would let me now you have responded to my reply. I always have to remember that i posted something and which post it was. I believe there is a simple feature that you can just click that lets readers know. Howver! because you have so many readers perhaps it would trigger too many back and forths! So fantastic that you are closing in on 100,000 followers of this page. So exciting. Must be gratifying to have that kind of impact!

        1. More will be revealed, Jennifer. I wouldn’t worry.

          Thank you for the reminder about adding notifications to my site’s comments. I have that ability in my community forum, but not here. Maybe that’s something that same college freshman daughter can help me with over Winter Break!

          1. you’re welcome. i know so many people will appreciate you turning on this feature!

      2. I have also described my son as an old soul, he ended up getting a scholarship at an all boys boarding school in Chattanooga, a whole day of travel by plane home. Best thing I did for him. He will be 17 soon and just got accepted to Wesleyan, I sure hope he does as well as your daughter is doing!

  6. Janet, Thank you for this list and for these important reminders. I know I will return to it again and again.

  7. elizabeth says:

    we specifically chose a school for our daughters that also fosters these traits.
    i hope more schools will do this in the future…

  8. I love number 1 – so important! These are wonderful reminders!

  9. I just love this article! I try so very hard, everyday, to keep RIE principles in my thoughts. So much of my thinking is consumed by tiny, little day to day interactions involving myself and my girls that I almost (happily) get lost in the little things. This post illuminated the bigger picture. What we’re all striving for as parents. It’s not about the minutiae of one push, one meltdown, one hug…it’s about what all of these little events lead to.

    I always feel inspired when I read or listen to your words Janet, but this time it’s different. This got to my core. It’s what I needed to read, while my every day struggle/focus is being present enough to stop my toddler from pushing her sister. The focus isn’t stopping the pushing. The focus is how my reaction will shape the little people I’m so worried ALL THE TIME.

    What an extraordinarily uplifting and eye opening post. I can’t wait for morning when I can try to be better…just like the next day.

    Thank you Janet.

  10. What a great read! Many thanks

  11. Wonderful article thank you! My question is relating to being respectful of a child’s body & giving them control when they need to do something they don’t want to for their health! My toddler refuses to take medicine in this particular case he is very sick and needs prescribed medicine! I’ve tried all things possible to stay calm & explain to him, even trying to give it to him while he sleeps! Nothing works & I need to physically force him to take it which is absolutely AWFULL!!! I’m worried about what this approach could do to him & how to do it better!? Thank you.

    1. Genesis Clark says:

      Linnet ~ my heart goes out to you! What a difficult situation for you and your little one. Have you tried giving him choices, that is, you’ve already explained how important the medicine is for him to take (just like it’s important for us to eat healthy foods and get good rest and exercise) so taking the medicine for him is a non negotiable (just like brushing teeth before bedtime), so now that all that is established WHEN does HE want to take it, for instance, asking a question like this, “Would you like to take your medicine before I read this book or after? Before your bath or after?” Giving him the choice is empowering. Also, perhaps offering a visual “sticker chart” encouragement to show a progress of success. In addition, when my guys were little, they picked out / or were given a particular stuffed animal / doll that always accompanied them for comfort when they got ouchies / needed to take medicine. We also had them pretend to give their dolls medicine and role played with them this way, i believe doing this helped them feel comforted and and also able to comfort another. Hope this helps!

  12. I love how you connected your almost adult child and your apparent lack of influence on her feelings to the whole process of growing up with our kids from birth and especially through their first years. It’s really insightful, and puts everything in a new perspective. It’s so easy to get caught in the daily hussles, the crying, the tantrums, the non compliances when we are in a hurry (and when aren’t we in a hurry bu the way?!); and see all this from a distance, from those teenage years that will depend on how strong a relationship we are building NOW.. it’s very powerful. Thank you.

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