How to give your kids a ‘happy childhood’

From a psychologist’s perspective, it doesn’t make sense for parents to try to make their children ‘happy’ all the time. In fact, often as parents it is our role to make our children ‘unhapppy’ because we can’t – and shouldn’t – always give them what they want. We have to set limits for them, and they don’t usually like that. Also, children need to experience the full range of feelings – including sadness, grief, anger – not just happiness. In the words of Carl Jung, “Even a happy life cannot be without some darkness and the word ‘happy’ would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness”.

Sometimes what looks like ‘happiness’ can actually be unconscious defense mechanisms that protect people from emotional pain. The kind of happiness this article refers to though is an internal state – or a state of mind, rather than the fleeting experience of delight that results from being given some sweets or having just experienced an exciting ride on a roller-coaster.

Paul Martin, a behavioural biologist who wrote the wonderful book Making Happy People reminds us that the foundations of happiness are laid in childhood and that parents play a vital role in creating an environment for this to happen. The American psychologist and author, Prof Martin Seligman, reminds us that happiness lies in the ‘good life’, not in the ‘pleasant life’. The ‘pleasant life’, says Seligman, is about immediate gratification, a hedonistic existence and limitless access to material wealth and possessions. A ‘good life’, however, is about engaging in worthwhile, meaningful activities that can bring both pleasure and pain. Examples of this are training for a marathon, studying for a degree, taking care of an ill person, raising a child, and so on. Happiness is not about the pursuit of pleasure and the absence of pain. A never-ending supply of good and easy treats and experiences is not going to teach your child to develop the art of finding happiness.

One of the most important things you can teach your child is that having a lot of money doesn’t buy happiness. Being economically deprived also doesn’t bring happiness though. Poverty is a real happiness-killer. Enough money – but not too much – puts people in a position where they are more likely to find happiness.

Learning and cultivating a skill (for example, on the sportsfield, the art-room or the stage) is more likely to bring about happiness than spending time watching TV, playing computer games and eating sweets. But pressurizing kids – Tiger-mother style – to excel at something that they are not keen on doing is counter-productive. Each child is unique, and so different things make different children happy. As a parent, it is essential that you get to know your child and that you don’t expect her to be something she isn’t. See the child she is, and learn from her what brings joy and satisfaction to her life.

Looking at a wide range of research on happiness, Paul Martin has noted some of the key personal qualities of happy people, and these have their roots in childhood. Most importantly, happy people have good social and communication skills and they are ’emotionally literate’ (they can easily talk about their feelings). Happy people get on with others. They are more empathic, co-operative, generous and sociable. They have positive, close relationships with others. These skills are developed in childhood and you can help cultivate them in your children by encouraging good friendships with their peers and by developing a positive, secure relationship with your kids.

Children who suffer from anxiety and other psychiatric, behavioural and emotional disturbances are much more likely to have an unhappy childhood. Happiness is close to mental health. Mental illness does not bring about happiness, unless the person (usually an adult) is constructively able to use her mental illness as a personally transformative experience. This can happen through a process of psychotherapy. Should your child experience any mental disturbances, see a child psychotherapist without delay. Email jenny@perkel.co.za for a referral to a child mental health professional in your area.

Happiness means something different to each person but to Allen K. Chalmers, it means ‘Having something to do, something to love and something to hope for.’ That is something you can offer your child.

Tips for parents to help create a happy childhood for your kids

  • talk to your kids
  • spend time with them
  • play together and encourage them to play with others
  • allow space and time for free play
  • don’t overschedule your children or keep them so busy that they have no time to play
  • develop a sincere connection (bond) with your kids
  • have fun together with your kids
  • encourage deep and lasting friendships with their peers
  • nurture your own friendships and relationships so that your kids learn by example
  • teach your kids to be grateful for and satisfied with what they have
  • don’t give your kids everything they want
  • encourage your kids to put the time and energy into learning and developing a skill
  • limit computer, tv and screen time
  • encourage creativity and free play
  • aim to improve your children’s self-esteem
  • teach your children how to value themselves
  • see a child psychotherapist if you believe that your child is not happy