Important Lessons Every Parent Must Teach their Child About Happiness
Happiness. It’s what every parent wants for their child. Not of the fleeting variety – like those moments that follow the thrill of a rollercoaster ride – but of the ever-lasting kind: the ability to approach each day with hope and gratitude. The type of happiness that comes with finding inner-balance or zhōng yōng 中庸 “middle way” as they say in Chinese.
Our desire for our children is rooted in more than just feel-good vibes. Research shows that being happy also makes us healthier, more productive, and nicer. Happier kids grow into adults who have better relationships, careers and are, overall, better people.
And yet, today, our children are programmed to believe that happiness can be achieved through shortcuts: More “likes” on Facebook, having the latest “it” accessory, tasty treats, carefree holidays and yet more purchases.
Let’s admit it, as parents we can also fall into the trap of mindlessly teaching our children these lessons through our behaviours.
How do we prepare our children for the road ahead, and how can we insure for their happiness? Teaching them these eight important lessons is, in my opinion, the best way to set your child on a path to becoming a happy adult.
Lesson 1: The importance of human connections
Human connections, even seemingly insignificant ones, matter. Studies reliably show that consistent and small interactions in our day overwhelmingly contribute to our happiness. Social connection throughout our lives is also an important contributor to our health and longevity.
So say “good morning” to the people you meet, strike a conversation with your coffee barista and smile at other people at the traffic lights – and encourage your children to do the same. While every child is different, the more your child sees you at ease with others the more they will learn qualities of openness, tolerance and friendliness, skills which will contribute to being socially-engaging adults.
For your child’s sense of belonging, it is important to drum in the connections to family and community. However, living overseas and away from your extended family can make cultivating personal relationships difficult. Even though we may not be able to always “see” our loved ones face-to-face, technology can help break down those barriers and enable people to connect, and connect more often.
FaceTime for iPhones and Skype are two perfect (and free) applications you can use to see your loved ones on-line or on your phones. WhatsApp and WeChat are also great (free) real-time messaging apps that can be used to set up “family” chat groups to keep each other “in the loop”. Schedule regular phone calls and use reminders to keep in touch and help your child feel part of a wider family unit.
(Read this article by Justine Campbell for more tips on how to stay digitally connected with your family while living overseas.)
Lesson 2: To move, everyday, preferably outdoors
“Without health, there is no happiness.” – Thomas Jefferson
Fact: Healthy people are happy people. A 2011 study of the US census data found that health – not wealth – was an overwhelming determinant of happiness. Instilling a healthy regimen – a morning walk, after school sports or weekend adventures – from a young age will serve them well in their adult years.
Best of all, get them outdoors. Not only does exercise produce “feel-good” hormones, exercising outdoors in the sunshine also means exposure to Vitamin D, which is important for immunity and increases serotonin levels – a natural mood booster!
Living in Hong Kong, which is 70 per cent country park and where a hiking trail is never far away, there is no excuse for NOT getting outdoors. A family hike on the weekend doubles up as perfect family-bonding time and a happiness-inducing breath of fresh air. (Tip: The SCMP published five family-friendly hikes in the Post last year, take a look!)
Lesson 3: How to be still
Practicing mindfulness teaches a child focus, shows them how to positively manage stress, helps to regulate their emotions, and also develops a positive outlook. And mindfulness doesn’t have to be about sitting still and om-ing like you see in the movies. Fantastic resources abound these days to help make “being mindful” accessible and fun.
Relax Kids (www.relaxkids.com ) are innovators in children’s mindfulness and relaxation and have an extensive variety of relaxation CDs, classes and books for anxiety, anger management, sleeping problems and self-esteem products to choose from.
Susan Kaiser Greenland’s “The Mindful Child: How to Help Your Kid Manage Stress and Become Happier, Kinder, and More Compassionate” is another personal favourite mindfulness tool for children. Written in handbook style, it is packed full of songs, games and fables to weave mindfulness principles into everyday tasks.
But of course – monkey see, monkey do! There is no better way to teach your child mindfulness than by practising it yourself. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program taught by Peta McCauley out of Hong Kong’s Centre for Mindfulness is a popular and engaging 8-week course modelled on the program founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Lesson 4: The importance of sleep
“I studied, I met with medical doctors, scientists, and I’m here to tell you that the way to a more productive, more inspired, more joyful life is: getting enough sleep.” – Arianna Huffington
Getting enough sleep is one of the surest paths to a better life, and yet Hong Kong kids simply do not typically get enough of it. The latest protocols suggest children aged 5 to 12 need 10 to 11 hours sleep a night, while those aged 12 to 18 need between 8.5 to 9.5 hours sleep a night. But a recent study conducted by Caritas found that more than a third of year 5 and year 6 students in Hong Kong slept only around 6 to 7 hours sleep a night.
Without sleep, children are not able to process what they’ve learned during that day (making all that extra study useless) and generally lack creativity (and thus problem-solving skills). A lack of sleep may also affect growth hormones.
While adults need less sleep, it is still a crucial part of our health and our lives, and therefore it is imperative to establish good sleep hygiene early. Set (and for the older child, mutually agree on) “bed time” – and safeguard/enforce it zealously. Avoid over-scheduling your child to help keep to bed-time schedules.
And it goes without saying: avoid technology late at night to help your child get to sleep (and that goes for you too!) Digital devices affect the brain’s wiring, suppresses melatonin production (which helps you get to sleep) and keeps you alert.
Lesson 5: Watch your words
“Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions; they become habit. Watch your habits; they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” – Lao Tzu
Language is powerful. Words have the power to not only describe our experiences but also shape them. Indeed, even create them.
As parents we are constantly monitoring our children’s language: for manners, for proper expression, to avoid “bad words” and to ensure our children are kind. But there are other powerful words that are spoken by our children that we should watch for that shape their outlook on life and future happiness.
For example, when your child uses the word “can’t” in relation to a task or activity, remind them that they can’t do something yet. It’s an important yet powerful addition (explained wonderfully by Carol Dweck here.
Similarly, “I am” is fixed – I am angry, I am sad, I am frustrated – whereas feelings are flexible and indicate an ability to change. Using the word “I feel” instead – I feel angry, I feel sad, I feel frustrated – may help your child to gain perspective on how things may change. Have a look at this site for other alternative words to encourage your child to use.
Lesson 6: Be kind and self-compassionate
“When we suffer, caring for ourselves as we would care for someone we truly love. Self-compassion includes self-kindness, a sense of common humanity, and mindfulness.” – Kristen Neff
Kindness is one of the first character traits that we encourage in our children. But shouldn’t we also teach our children that kindness is something that we should extend to ourselves, in the form of self-compassion? We are kind to other people, so why shouldn’t we be kind to ourselves when faced with our fears and struggles?
Dr Kristin Neff, a pioneer on the subject of self-compassion, perfectly summarises the quality: “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”
Self-compassion is not mutually exclusive with being “brave” or “ambitious”. Rather, it teaches your child to care for themselves and realise their experience is part of the greater human experience; indeed, life is not perfect.
One practical way to help your child practice self-compassion is by introducing the concept of “permission slips”, as used by Dr Brené Brown. “Permission slips” are simply that: a written note giving yourself permission to act or feel a certain way. For Dr Brown, a permission slip reminded her that she had the right to be “uncool” when meeting Oprah. But permission slips can be even simpler than that: giving yourself permission to ask questions, to make mistakes, and to be human.
(Dr Neff and Dr Brown have partnered up to offer a course on self-compassion. Learn more here.)
Lesson 7: Reflect and be grateful
#Grateful is suffering from overuse on social media channels at the moment, but that doesn’t mean the importance of reflection and gratefulness are any less relevant or important. Without doubt, gratitude is one of the biggest contributing factors towards happiness
Make practising gratefulness a regular habit in your home. Encourage reflection at the end of the day, focusing on “what went right”, and shifting your child’s focus towards positive experiences rather than dwelling on any negative one.
A simple way to incorporate a gratitude practice is to begin every evening meal with asking your child, “What is one thing you are grateful for or positive about today?” Ending the day on a positive note may also promote a better night’s sleep.
Lesson 8: Stay Curious
“When we are curious, we see things differently; we use our powers of observation more fully. We sense what is happening in the present moment, taking note of what is, regardless of what it looked like before or what we might have expected it to be.”
Lastly, encourage and cultivate your child’s curiosity. In a study of character traits that contribute to happiness, a “love of learning” was one of two traits deemed best able to contributes to our well being (the other was gratefulness).
That’s because curious souls are always searching for ways to gain new skills or knowledge, which means they open and eager to new experiences and create more opportunities for fulfillment. To them, the act of learning is its own intrinsic reward.
While some people are more curious than others, curiosity can be developed. It starts with asking questions, suggests Harvard University scholar Paul Harris, which triggers a sophisticated mental process. “The child has to first realise that there are things they don’t know…that there are invisible worlds of knowledge they have never visited.”
More importantly, curiosity must be encouraged, or studies show children may simply give up. Children ask questions constantly. Rather than muffle their constant questioning, engage with them. If you don’t know the answer, let the answer be, “Let’s find out!”
Above all, parents can encourage curiosity by being curious themselves. Sign up to a new course, embark on a new adventure, whatever it might be. As Mark Twain once said: “Explore. Dream. Discover.” Do that, and your child will learn from you how to happily do the same.