Our society is full of unhappy, stressed-out people. Todd Patkin says
that many of the habits, attitudes, and thought processes that negatively
impact our lives as adults actually have their roots in childhood. Here, he
offers eight ways for parents to make “happy” a habit in their kids’ lives.
Foxboro, MA (October 2012)—Chances are, you don’t know many adults who’d say, “I’m so happy to get up every morning and live my wonderful life.” Instead, it’s far more likely that you, along with most of your friends and acquaintances, drag yourselves out of bed and start your days with a gnawing sense of dread that never really goes away. And between the time when the alarm clock goes off and you collapse back onto the mattress at night, you’re overstressed, overscheduled, and overwhelmed. Honestly, that sort of lifestyle doesn’t really leave very much room for “happy.”
If you accept this lackluster existence as normal, here’s a piece of information that might surprise you: Semi-constant stress and dissatisfaction aren’t inevitable. In fact, according to Todd Patkin, the root of much of our unhappiness can be traced back to our childhoods—which means that as a parent, you’re faced with a very important responsibility.
“Of course you want to do everything in your power to raise fulfilled, confident, and healthy children—and setting them up for a happy life definitely fits that bill,” says Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In (StepWise Press, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-9658261-9-8, $19.95). “In fact, more than guiding them toward a good college or providing them with the finest material comforts, the absolute best thing you can do for your children is to instill habits that will cultivate lifelong happiness.”
Patkin speaks from experience. After dealing with feelings of anxiety and depression throughout his life—despite achieving outward success, wealth, and respect—he suffered a devastating breakdown at the age of thirty-six. Looking back, he says, he can trace many of the factors that led to his breakdown back to the issues he struggled with as a child, including perfectionism, separation anxiety, and feeling inadequate.
“Now, please don’t get me wrong—I’m certainly not saying that my own parents, or any parents, ‘failed’ in their duties,” Patkin clarifies. “The problem lies chiefly with our culture’s priorities and traditions, which are based on the incorrect assumption that things like more success, more accomplishments, and more money are the main ingredients of happiness. That’s why I think it’s so important for parents to redefine what’s really important in life, and to make sure they’re helping their kids develop healthy habits.”
Make no mistake—the habits that shape and define our lives are ingrained early on. And since kids begin to form habits in infancy (sleeping and eating patterns come to mind!), it’s never too early to begin. Read on for eight of Patkin’s suggestions on how to raise kids who will grow up to be happy adults:
Show your kids what happiness looks like. As a parent, you’ve probably noticed that your kids will follow your lead, even when you don’t think they’ve been paying attention. (If you don’t have at least one funny story about something “adult” your child once said or did, you’re in the minority.) The thing is, this phenomenon happens with good things and bad things. You can tell your kids every day and every night how important it is to cut themselves slack when they’ve made a mistake, for example, but if you beat yourself up for days after messing up at work, your instructions won’t stick.
“Kids do what they see us doing, not what we tell them to do,” Patkin confirms. “If you live a frenetic, stressful, and unhappy life, chances are good that your kids will grow up to do the same. When it comes to instilling happiness habits, the most important thing you can do is model the behaviors and attitudes you want them to adopt. So if you feel that your own priorities are out of whack, that your coping mechanisms are unhealthy, or that your outlook could use improving, do what you need to do in order to make the necessary adjustments. Be sure you’re modeling all of the behaviors I’m about to describe. Remember, you’re not being selfish in the least—you’re guaranteeing a brighter future for yourself and your kids…and their kids after them.”
Teach your kids to love themselves. Despite what you may tell yourself as you tuck your children in at night, the love you feel for them—as boundless and unconditional as it might be—won’t be enough to sustain them throughout their lifetimes. It’s crucial that you teach them from a very early age to love themselves as well. When they place value on themselves not because of the grades they make or the friends they have, but simply because of who they are, they’ll develop a deep-seated sense of confidence.
“The confidence that comes from loving yourself helps to guard against everything from feelings of inadequacy to living to please others to bullying, all of which can lead to more serious problems like depression,” Patkin explains. “Admittedly, there is no ‘magic bullet’ for teaching your kids to love themselves—it’s something that will develop over time, and many of the tips I’m going to share will contribute to this goal. Overall, though, always be your kids’ biggest cheerleaders. Teach them to focus on all of the unique, positive aspects of themselves instead of dwelling on what they can improve and what they’ve done wrong.
“And always, always let them know they are loved unconditionally,” he adds. “So many children believe that they are only as good as their grades, their ability to entertain others, or who their friends are. Teaching them that they have intrinsic value starts at home with you.”
Help them to let go of the obsession with perfectionism. It goes without saying that parents don’t set out to harm their children when they push them to succeed—it’s natural to want your child to realize his full potential and take advantage of every opportunity. But the truth is that parents’ high expectations put the most pressure of all on their children, and many kids—especially those whose personalities predispose them to it—get the (incorrect) idea that anything short of perfection is a failure.
“Consider this: When your child comes home with four great grades and one that’s not so good (for example, four As and one B), do you focus on how great the As are?” Patkin asks. “Or is your first response, ‘What happened? Why did you get the B in this course?’ It’s important to realize that by celebrating the As, you’re still letting your child know that top marks are the goal—but you’re doing it in a much healthier way than by immediately showing disappointment over the one grade that was lacking. And if he’s beating himself up over the report card, reassure him that it’s okay as long as he did his best.
“My point is, always think about how your expectations and reactions might affect your child. Releasing him from the grip of perfectionism has to start with you—it won’t happen on its own. Tell him on a regular basis that you love him—not his grades or his sports trophies, but him. Help him to believe that he is adequate and successful no matter what.”
Teach your kids to play to their strengths. It’s no secret that we are raising our children in a very competitive world. Many kids—and their parents—feel a compulsion to be good at everything. Think about it: If your child excels in one subject, is average at most, and just can’t seem to grasp one more, how is her homework and study time allotted? Chances, are, she spends the most time trying to improve in the subject she’s bad at and devotes the least time to the subject that comes naturally to her. Problem is, she’ll probably never ace her weak subject…but think about what a shining star she could be if she dedicated her best efforts toward what she was good at! (That holds true not just for her academic career, but for her professional one as well.)
“In addition to inadvertently holding themselves back by trying to shore up their weaknesses, kids also make themselves feel inadequate when they fail to live up to their own expectations,” Patkin says. “As a parent, don’t support the notion that they should be good at everything. Instead, tell your child that everyone is good at some things and not so good at others—it’s what makes us human! Also, help your child to identify what her strengths and talents are and encourage her to pursue those things, rather than activities that make her feel less-than-great.”
Help your kids develop the power of perspective. Kids live in a small world where even the “little stuff” is a huge deal. (Case in point: Mom, Sarah wore the same shirt to school that I did! Or, I didn’t get to play on the same kickball team as Jimmy today!) And as you know from experience, the problems you encounter in elementary school don’t compare to the ones you encounter in high school…which don’t even begin to compare to the ones you face as an adult. That’s why Patkin says that one of the best things you can do to instill the happiness habit in your kids is to help them to develop perspective.
“Negative things will happen to all of us,” he confirms. “But often, we make it so much worse by dwelling on the past, beating ourselves up mercilessly for mistakes, and worrying about what might happen at some point in the future. I remember doing all of those things on a regular basis when I was a kid, and I certainly wasn’t the only one. Now, I wonder how different my life—or at least my emotional well-being—might have been if I had learned early on to consider what a negative situation or bad news looked like in the bigger picture.
“From now on, when your child is faced with a problem or disappointment, sit down with him and make a list of all of the things he is good at—for instance, talented soccer player, wonderful big brother, great artist—and then point out how one mistake is a drop in the bucket amidst all of his other successes. Keep the list handy to pull out as a reminder in the future! Remember, when your child is able to accept failure, move forward, and keep a positive outlook, then he will have developed a crucial skill for his adult life.”
Raise your kids to be helpers. As adults, we know how great it can feel when we give back to others. Helping another person—whether it’s through service, teaching, or donating your resources—connects you to the rest of humanity in a powerful way. It also cultivates qualities like selflessness, empathy, and generosity, which are crucial building blocks when it comes to creating healthy, happy kids who grow into fulfilled, balanced adults.
“Sit down and talk with your kids about what it means to give back and why it’s important, and discuss all the ways to do it,” suggests Patkin. “Make sure they understand that giving back doesn’t just mean donating money, and that generosity is not limited to giving away things you no longer want. Then, make a list of projects that your kids are interested in participating in. Maybe they’d like to help out with a food drive or a bake sale, or perhaps they’d rather volunteer at a local animal shelter or nursing home. Have conversations with them throughout the process, helping them to tap into how philanthropy makes them feel and who they’re helping.”
Give your kids the gift of gratitude. Unless you live under a rock, you’ve encountered youngsters who are selfish, entitled, impolite, and just plain nasty to others. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these qualities don’t tend to cultivate a happy life (after all, who’d want to spend much time with you?), nor are they indicative of an inherently happy person. Fortunately, there’s an antidote to make sure your kids don’t take everything and everyone in their lives for granted: gratitude.
“An attitude of gratitude might be a clichéd concept, but I know from experience that having one can change the way you look at and interact with the world,” promises Patkin. “When you realize on a daily basis how fortunate you are—from being born in this country to having food on your table to having a family who loves you—you’ll develop perspective and compassion. You’ll have stronger, more genuine relationships, and you’ll look at the world with a healthy perspective instead of believing it revolves around you. That’s true for kids as well as adults!
“There are so many things you can do to instill gratitude in your kids,” Patkin continues. “Verbally identifying and naming your blessings as a family is one, and making thank-you card writing a ‘rule’ after birthdays and holidays is another. Another, more subtle method, is to deny your kids every once in a while. Of course I’m not advocating compromising their well-being, but the truth is, they don’t need every toy they ask for. Not getting what they want, when they want it, every time, will help them to value what they do have, and it will protect against entitlement. Making your kids chip in to pay for what they want (whether it’s with money or by doing chores) will have the same effect.”
Make happiness a priority for your family. This may seem like a no-brainer. Of course we all make happiness a priority, right? After all, who would want to deliberately make themselves miserable? If you take a long, hard look at your family’s lifestyle, though, you may be surprised by the conclusions you come to. For many families, things like academics, sports, or other activities may actually be in the top priority slots—and they may not be making any of you as happy as you once thought they did. Make no mistake: What you prioritize in our family unit will become the things your kids learn to prioritize too, well into adulthood.
“Sit down with your kids and talk about the things that make them happy,” Patkin advises. “Try to get a feel for whether or not their daily and weekly activities fulfill them. Ask questions like, ‘Does playing softball make you feel good?’ or, ‘What were you doing today when you felt the best?’ If you hear surprising answers, talk about what your family could be doing differently. This isn’t a one-time exercise, either. Sitting down on a regular basis to talk about how to reprioritize will make a happier family and will give your kids the valuable skill of evaluating their own lives and letting go of the things that aren’t working.”
“Don’t focus so much on things like stopping thumb-sucking and using good manners that you forget to emphasize habits that cultivate real happiness,” Patkin concludes. “In a very real way, the attitudes and outlooks you instill in your children today will impact the rest of their lives—for good or ill.”