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.
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.
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
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.
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
(Photo by Jude Keith Rose)