If you ask just about any parent what they want for their children, they’ll tell you it’s for them to be happy.
As parents, we take on the impossible task of “making” our children happy. When one of our children is unhappy, it affects everyone in the household - even the very atmosphere. Their unhappiness triggers our discomfort, probably because we, too, were taught to suppress or put a Band-Aid on unpleasant emotions. So we move mountains to make them smile again.
We attempt temporary fix after temporary fix until we finally either crack under the weight of such a heavy burden or we have the epiphany that not only is our goal impossible but also that us doing so isn’t good for anyone! Children will inevitably feel mad, sad, or disappointed at some point in their life, and when we define their emotions as our report card, with “happy” being the “A” then we are bound to feel like we are failing.
Even if we did have the great power to bestow happiness on our children, which we do not, how would we sustain it? A child’s idea of happiness is ever-changing and very fickle. Kids want happiness that can be handed to them in a flash. A new toy. Getting to stay up late. Having screen time extended.
I have two children, and different things make each of them happy. If I take on the job of ensuring both of their happiness, I will be consumed by their never-ending demands and constantly revolving (and evolving) wants. And if I teach my children that their happiness depends on me, what happens when I’m not around anymore? Who will have to fill that role when they move out? Roommates? Friends? Partners? This sets them up to always rely on someone else to make them happy, and that’s a tall order for anyone to fill.
When we make it our job to make our kids happy, we are setting them up to fail. They will always be looking to an outside source to make them feel okay emotionally. As for the parents? We are setting ourselves up to fail too, because the moment our children become unhappy, we internalize that as “not-enoughness.” We feel like failures because we did everything in our power to make our kid happy and here they are, unhappy. We missed the mark. We didn’t live up to the expectation. We let them down. We are not good enough parents. And now we’re unhappy, too.
Here’s a nugget of wisdom that took me entirely too long to grasp - I don’t have all the control and it’s not all on me. In fact, in the grand scheme of parenthood (and life), I have very little control of the outcome. There are so many factors that influence my child - his happiness, his behavior, who he decides to become - and I am only a sliver of influence in this great wide world, and my sliver gets smaller as they get taller.
Parenting is a hard enough job without adding extra pressures and duties that aren’t ours to bear. The load is heavy enough without forcing impossible tasks unto ourselves and feeling disappointed when we cannot achieve them. It is my job to love, nurture, and guide. It is my job to teach my children how to be independent adults one day. It is my job to show up as my best self, to tame my own triggers, and to learn to regulate my emotions and take responsibility for my own happiness.
That is a tall enough order. It is NOT my job to make my children happy. That’s their job.
Instead, let’s teach our children what they can do to make themselves happy. It’s the ole “give a man a fish” scenario. We might be able to make our kids happy in the short term by giving them what they want, but if we show them how to make themselves truly happy, they will reap the rewards of that for a lifetime.
5 Ways to Teach Kids to Find Their Own Happiness
Let me start off by saying that happiness is a deeply personal thing. There is no one-size-fits-all happiness formula. If there was, we’d have all cashed in by now. However, with that said, science has proven that there are certain things that consistently lead to greater happiness overall, and I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that a Playstation 5 is not on the list.
Create a Calming Corner for teaching social-emotional intelligence.
Happiness isn’t just about experiencing pleasant emotions. A key component of happiness is being able to successfully manage the full range of human emotions. If you're always happy, you're avoiding all sorts of experiences and suppressing lots of emotions that will manifest eventually. The more emotions you experience, the more you develop emotional competence. After all, how will our kids learn how to handle unpleasant emotions if they never experience them?
You can teach your children how to deal with their emotions the same way you teach them ABCs and 123s. Tools such as the Time-In ToolKit show your kids how to name, understand, and manage their feelings, thus making them emotionally intelligent. Studies have shown that there is a positive and meaningful relation between emotional intelligence, happiness, and mental health.
Talk to your kids about their emotions rather than trying to get them back to happy immediately. “You look like you’re feeling frustrated. What does it feel like in your body?” Then discuss how to deal with that emotion. “When I’m feeling frustrated, it helps me to take a walk and think about my options. Would you like to try that now?”
Discuss the Importance of Positive Relationships
Humans are wired for connection. Without it, we suffer emotionally and mentally. Social connections are a big predictor of happiness, and luckily high emotional intelligence leads to more positive relationships.
Your relationship with your child acts as a model for all future relationships. When a parent-child relationship is rooted in fear and control, kids learn unhealthy relationship patterns and are more likely to repeat these patterns in the future. However, when your relationship is rooted in love, respect, and cooperation, this becomes the foundation they will build on and seek out in future relationships. Keep your connection strong by practicing positive parenting, spending time together laughing and playing, and being a warm and empathetic leader.
Keep your finger on the pulse of your child’s school experience. Are they being bullied? Are they making friends? If your child is struggling with friendships, read 10 Ways to Help Your Child Make Friends. Also, getting your child involved in sports, dance, theater, or other extracurricular activities offers new opportunities to make positive social connections.
Teach Them to Help Others
There’s a Chinese saying that goes “If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.” Research shows that helping others boosts our own happiness. It gives you a profound sense of satisfaction and delight, called “helper’s high.”
The simplest way to teach this is through modeling, of course. When you give to charity, volunteer, or simply help out a neighbor, let your children see or, better yet, take them along. Talk to them about how serving their fellow man, animals, or the environment boosts their own brain chemicals and is rewarding. It’s more a way of life than an intermittent act, so let the giving spirit flow through your family at all times by discussing it, pointing it out when you see it, and consistently performing acts of kindness and service.
You’ve undoubtedly heard that practicing gratitude and mindfulness has a positive effect on mental and emotional health. Yet, in our busy lives, we often brush it aside in favor of checking off boxes on our to-do lists. But practicing gratitude doesn’t have to be a chore. It can be woven into the very fabric of each day with short, meaningful rituals such as naming three things you are grateful for at a dinner table or as part of your bedtime routine. You can practice gratitude journaling together or put up a gratitude board in your home.
Importantly, it’s good to adopt an “attitude of gratitude” yourself, and voice the things you are thankful for often. Look for silver linings and point them out. As always, your kids will learn more by watching and listening to you than they will if you hand them a journal with instructions. So much of raising children is really about learning and growing ourselves to become what we hope to instill.
Pursue Hobbies That Bring You Joy and Meaning
Lastly, science shows that our happiness increases when we do something that gives us meaning and purpose, such as a job or a hobby. While it is not your job to find your kid’s passion, you can talk to them about how fulfilling it is to find something that they love to do, and you can facilitate and encourage it when it happens.
For example, if your child lights up when he paints, you’d provide the materials. If she loves basketball, you might get coaching sessions. When my children developed a love for acting, we did a lot of traveling to rehearsals and shows, and they thrived in it for years. Sometimes, those passions fizzle out, and that’s okay, too. If it’s forced, it isn’t bringing joy or meaning. Notice what your child is interested in and follow their lead.
We cannot make our children happy, but we can teach them how to make themselves happy, because ultimately, happiness is an inside job. If they do not rely on someone else to make them happy, then they also do not have to worry about someone being able to take their happiness away. They are in control, and that’s a beautiful thing.