As a parent, I know that my child’s happiness depends largely on me.
And that’s great, because if anyone’s able and willing to do the necessary things to make our children happy, it’s us.
The only problem is, those things aren’t exactly clear.
As parents, what should our focus be? What qualities should we be working to instill in our children? What should we avoid doing? And why isn’t there a manual for this stuff?
If you make children happy now, you make make them happy twenty years hence by the memory of it.
– Kate Douglas Wiggin
It can be really hard figuring out how to make our kids happy now. But what’s even more important is to teach them values that will make them happier throughout the rest of their life.
Fortunately, a lot of research has been done on this topic over the past decade. We have finally begun to shed light on the habits and behaviors parents can adopt to raise happy, “well-rounded” human beings.
Here are five of the most important ones.
1. The parents have a strong relationship with each other
Before getting to anything else, we need to tackle one of the single most important things of all: how the parents or caregivers interact with each other.
According to a study reviewed by professor Robert Hughes of the University of Illinois, children who grow up in tumultuous families with high conflict tend to do worse in life when compared to children who grow up in families where the parents get along (single parent families included).
Divorce also plays a big part in this, with twenty-year-old children of parents who divorced early in their life still experiencing the pain of the separation ten years later.
Editor’s note: This doesn’t mean that divorce should be avoided at all costs. The main takeaway is that parents who get along — as a couple or not — tend to raise happier kids.
2. They have strong relationships with their kids
It might seem like a no-brainer that having a better relationship with your child will result in a happier child, but you’re most likely thinking about the point in which the kid has gotten old enough to speak with you and understand you. However, it turns out this concept starts as early as infancy.
In 2014, Lee Raby and his associates at the University of Delaware conducted a study on 243 subjects and found that infants and young children (below three years of age) who received sensitive caregiving — caregiving where the parent readily met all the child’s needs as they arose — had healthier relationships and even did better academically all the way into their thirties.
Here is Lee Raby’s conclusion:
“This suggests that investments in early parent-child relationships may result in long-term returns that accumulate across individuals’ lives”
3. They’re less stressed out
Based on a study by sociologist Melissa Milkie and associates at the University of Toronto, the amount of time you spend with your kids actually has no impact on how your children develop.
In fact, one area where parent time can actually be harmful is when the parent is stressed out. The same study found that time with children can have a negative effect when parents, particularly mothers, are stressed out and anxious.
This is likely due to the contagious effect of emotions (referred to as “emotional contagion”). If mommy and daddy are stressed, it can affect the kid’s well-being as well.
4. They prioritize social skills
Social skills are one of the most important skill sets we can pass on to our children, as they affect everything they’ll go on to do, from their friendships and romantic relationships to their career.
A study by Pennsylvania State and Duke University tracked over 700 children and young adults across the United States and discovered that social skills learned in childhood had a noticeable impact on a person’s success and well-being two decades later.
The children with limited social skills displayed a higher likelihood of abusing alcohol and being arrested later in life.
“This study shows that helping children develop social and emotional skills is one of the most important things we can do to prepare them for a healthy future,” said Kristin Schubert, director at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the research.
“From an early age, these skills can determine whether a child goes to college or prison, and whether they end up employed or addicted.”
5. They teach the value of failure
To me, the value of failure is one of the most important things you can learn as a child.
That’s because your perspective on failure will drastically affect how successful you are at virtually everything you do throughout your life.
It will affect how you react when you inevitably fail (and with big success must first come big failure) and whether you get back up and keep trudging or quit on your dreams and settle.
Carol Dweck of Stanford University has studied children for more than two decades and has discovered that they naturally adopt one of two mindsets:
- A fixed mindset: This is the belief that our attributes — intelligence, confidence, creativity, etc. in all things — are fixed and that success is a confirmation of those attributes. Because of this, the child and eventual adult avoids failure at all costs and doesn’t take the inevitable failure very productively.
- A growth mindset: This mindset believes that we can change and improve and welcomes failure because it teaches us lessons and helps us grow.
How do you instill this kind of mindset? It’s as simple as changing the child’s perspective.
If you teach them that they accomplished something because of a trait or attribute, such as their intelligence or athletic ability, they’ll develop a fixed mindset. Whereas if you tell them they accomplished it because of the effort they put in to become better at their craft, they’ll develop a growth mindset.