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How can parents raise happy children with balanced priorities?

As parents, there are so many things we want for our children: Opportunity, safety, a top-notch education, success and, of course, happiness. But raising happy kids is easier said than done. Not only is teaching your youngster the fundamentals of a fulfilling life more complicated than teaching the ABCs, but you also may have a skewed definition of what happiness actually is.

In our culture, we tend to confuse happiness with success. From the beginning of our childhood, we devote ourselves to racking up accomplishment after achievement after accolade, believing that recognition, money and moving up will make us happy. But all too often, instead of reaching a place of contentment, we end up driving ourselves over the edge or around the bend.

Even more than steering your children toward a top college or providing the best material comforts, the most valuable gifts you can give your children are balanced priorities and healthy habits. And the good news is that by remembering some fundamental do’s and don’ts, you can help your kids lay the foundation for a lifetime of happiness.


Do show kids what happiness looks like

“Do as I say, not as I do” is not a valid parenting strategy. If you live a frantic, stressed and unhappy life, odds are high that your child will grow up to do the same. The first step in raising happy kids is taking a hard look at your own priorities, coping mechanisms and behaviors, and making any necessary adjustments. You are not being selfish by spending time improving yourself; you are investing in your entire family’s well-being. And keep in mind that for your kids to absorb your healthy habits, you must be consistently present and involved in their lives--every day. Don’t buy into the quality time myth, which incorrectly states that a little time well-spent is enough.

Do teach kids the importance of giving back

Science (as well as a millennia of anecdotal evidence) shows that givers are happier and healthier than their non-giving peers. And for good reason. Being generous with our time, talents and resources connects us to others in a meaningful way, counteracts selfishness, develops empathy and even encourages gratitude. No matter the age of your kids, you can help them tap into the transformative power of helping others. For example, your family can volunteer at an animal shelter, collect and/or distribute clothing for the needy or help out an event to raise awareness for an illness. Be sure to have a conversation with your children throughout the process. Explain why the activity is important and who it helps. Talk to your kids about how philanthropy makes them feel and why.

Do help kids choose their friends wisely

The individuals with whom we spend the majority of our time have a significant impact on our attitudes and outlooks. That’s why it is important to gently encourage your children to seek out friends who make them feel good. In a world of mean girls and peer pressure, it is all too easy for so-called friends to decimate your child’s self-esteem, while passing on unhealthy attitudes and behaviors.

Be aware that part of this task involves teaching your children to be a good friends to others. When you are kind, empathetic, willing to share and don’t put others down, like-minded peers will be drawn to you.

Do encourage kids to play to their strengths

Our uber-competitive society pushes kids, as well as adults, to be good at everything. There is nothing wrong with encouraging your children to do their best, but be aware that extreme Tiger Parenting is likely to develop damaging perfectionism, while lowering your child’s self-esteem. The fact is that no one can be the best at everything. So instead of worrying excessively about the areas in which your children are weaker, encourage them to channel their time and energy toward their interests and talents. They will achieve their full potential in these areas, while preserving a healthy perspective and having fun.

Do educate kids about the value of exercise

We all know that being active is good for your physical health. But it also can have a big impact on your mental health. People who exercise tend to sleep better, process stress more effectively, and feel more energized and relaxed. Additionally, exercise is a great natural anti-depressant. In other words, living an active lifestyle is one of the most valuable tools your children can have in their happiness arsenal, now and throughout their lives. If your child is not already involved in athletics, consider making exercise a family event. For example, go on neighborhood walks, weekend hikes or hit up the YMCA pool. Even a game of tag in the backyard counts.


Do not tolerate bullying behaviors

Bullying is one of the biggest problems our society is facing. We are well aware of its tragic consequences among young people, and even though bullying among adults does not get as much publicity, it still has widespread and damaging consequences. As a parent, it is your responsibility to ensure that you don’t raise a bully. Do not assume that your child would never tease/put down/make fun of someone else. Sit down with your child and specifically define bullying. Explain how damaging certain words and actions can be to others and lay out what the consequences will be if lines are crossed. Don’t forget to point out that what happens online is just as serious as what happens face-to-face.

Do not overschedule kids

These days, it is not unusual for youngsters still in elementary school to have jam-packed schedules. And between school, sports, music lessons, homework and various other “essential” activities, many middle and high-schoolers regularly work 16-hour days. Often, parents don’t realize how much physical and mental strain their children are under. So take a step back and ask yourself if it is necessary for you and your children to run yourselves ragged. Be sure to bring your children into this conversation. You may be surprised to hear what brings them joy and what does not. Remember that it is about balance, not doing it all.

Do not push them too hard to succeed

In much the same way that it is easy to overschedule, it is also easy to push your kids too hard, with the best of intentions. Sure, it is natural to want your children to reach their highest potential and build a life full of opportunity. Just make sure that your children’s achievement doesn’t come at the price of their mental health. Remember that your expectations put the most pressure of all on your kids. So instead of zoom-focusing on a report card B, first celebrate all of the As. Ensure that your children know that you love them no matter what. Otherwise, they may assume they are only as good as their next test score or track meet.

Do not compare your kids

In theory, all parents know that comparing their kids is a no-no, but in the midst of everyday life, most of us could use a reminder. Every human being, regardless of age, has unique strengths and weaknesses. One of the most important things you can do for your kids is to let go of any preconceived expectations you might have, such as "my son is going to love football as much as I did" or "my daughter took pre-calculus her junior year of high school, so her younger brother should do the same." Make a consistent effort to correctly identify your children’s unique talents and abilities, and always love them for the amazing individuals they are.

Do not allow your children to beat themselves up

Many people are their own worst critics. Instead of celebrating their many successes, they choose to relive and brood about their occasional mistakes, reinforcing in their minds how subpar they think they are. Often, this tendency begins in childhood. You can combat it by helping your children refocus their outlook. Direct their attention to the things they do well and be generous with deserved praise. When your children start beating themselves up for a mistake, ask them to consider how they would treat a friend in the same situation. Would they berate a friend or comfort that friend and help him/her move forward? We could all benefit from showing ourselves more love and compassion—and the formative years of childhood are a great time to start.

Jumping cartoon

There is no magic bullet that will guarantee your child’s long-term happiness. But the good news is that parents are in the best possible position to help their children develop a skill set that will lead to fulfillment and contentment. When in doubt, emphasize balance and positivity—and be sure to model a happy life yourself.

More expert advice about Raising Healthy and Happy Kids

Photo Credits: © olly -; Check Man, Cross Man and Jump Man © ioannis kounadeas -

Todd PatkinAuthor, Speaker, and Happiness Coach

Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, Twelve Weeks to Finding Happiness: Boot Camp for Building Happier People, and Destination: Happiness (coming 2014), grew up...

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