Positive psychology and parenting

Chapter 13 (Example #2): Embracing the Delights of Parenting

Most parents will say that they want for their children to be happy, above all else.   While genetics and circumstances play a significant role in pre-determining children’s happiness set-points, parenting practices are also a considerable force in shaping children’s emotionality.  You have substantial influence over how your children view the world, relate to others, think, feel, and behave.  You can teach your children to experience gratitude, exemplify optimism for them and show them how to forgive.  You can prioritize family dinners and model happiness habits for them.   You can help them manage their emotions when they are angry or upset and instruct them on how to build friendships.    Just like any other value or skill that we train our child to develop such as good table manners or riding a bike, we can teach them the abilities that they will need to regularly experience contentment throughout their lives.

While the idea of wanting to raise happy children seems almost superfluous in today’s achievement-oriented society, happy children reap many benefits over their less joyful peers including greater health, more satisfactory interpersonal relationships, increased resiliency, and better job performance.   Regardless of how old your child is, whether they are beginning pre-school or starting their senior year in high school, research shows that they can benefit from learning these habits at any point in their development.   

 By taking into consideration your child’s developmental level and what kinds of activities they enjoy, you can find fun ways to insert happiness strategies into their daily lives.  Here are some examples

Cultivating an Attitude of Gratitude

Every parent has had to grapple with their child’s desire for material goods whether it comes in the form of whining that their friends own toys that they would like to have, or complaining that they need to have the latest high-end designer outfit that everyone is wearing.  We often become frustrated when we feel like our children do not appreciate the many things which we do provide them with.  We shouldn’t be surprised that many children and adolescents emphasize the importance of material items as we live in a culture that often values wealth, possessions, and status..

At one point or another, most every child has taken for granted the good things they have already been provided with.   They often don’t think about how many others across the world are lacking with respect to their safety, food, shelter, and freedom of expression.  Children are frequently reminded to thank others upon receipt of items such as birthday gifts, but are less likely to be instructed to pay thanks for the positive nonmaterial things in their lives, such as their relationships with others.     

There are many ways in which you can increase your child’s sense of gratitude. Children who are frequently grateful demonstrate increased levels of joy, altruistic behavior, and resiliency during difficult times.   Take heart in that the vast majority of children aren’t born understanding what it means to be grateful and must learn it through practice or direct instruction.   The following exercises can help children to build appreciation for the many blessings that have already been bestowed upon them and that they continue to experience on a regular basis. Try out one or more of the exercises listed below and see which activities work best for your family.  Before beginning, get as much input from your partner and your older children as possible, as they may initially be more resistant to these activities than your younger children.   The exercises should be incorporated into your family’s routine schedule as repetition is key for longstanding positive results.   After you have instituted an exercise for a few weeks, poll your family members about what their thoughts and feelings are in regards to the exercise.   Decide if you want to continue with the exercise, add an additional exercise, or try something new altogether.

Exercise #1: Showing Gratitude: 

(Try out one or several of these activities)

  • Bedtime is a special time that you can spend with your children. Many parents use this time to make sure their children bathe, brush their teeth, and get ready for the next day.  Parents may also initiate enrichment activities such as have their children say prayers or reading them a bedtime story.  This is also an opportune period to discuss what happened today that made you thankful.  You and your child can take turns until you are done……or you can have your child list several things.  If bedtime is too hectic to do this activity, pick a time that works better for your family.
  • During dinner time, have each family member say one thing that they appreciated that another person did that day.  It could be anything from a teacher who provided extra help during a math assignment, dad having baked a delicious dessert, or the children assisting with feeding the dogs, etc.
  • Make decorative thank you notes that say, “Thank you for being you,” on them.  Keep them in a basket in the kitchen or central location.  Encourage family members to give them out when they spot each other demonstrating altruism.  Every few weeks, talk about the notes they received or delivered and how the cards made the giver and receiver feel.
  • Instead of having your children give gifts to adults during holidays or special occasions, have them write gratitude letters, expressing appreciation for what that person means to them, what they admire about that person, etc.  Help your child frame the letter and decide whether they would like to read the letter in-person to the receiver.  Ask them to describe how writing/sharing the letter felt to them and to the person they were thanking.

Exercise #2: Charitable Giving

  • Prior to holidays such as Christmas or birthdays where your children will be receiving new toys, have them go through their things and pick out a select number of toys to be donated to a charity or children’s shelter.   Explain the significance of why you are doing this. 
  • As a family, select a charity or charities to adopt.  The charity could be any type from the humane society, supporting research of a disease, or a domestic violence shelter.   Each family member could do research about which charity they think should be adopted and why.  Throughout the year, do various activities to support the charity.  You could volunteer in-person as well as hold mini fundraisers, such as garage sales, to raise money for the specific cause.  Help your child make the connection as to why it’s important to help out those who are less fortunate. 

Exercise #3: Making Lemonade Out of Lemons

  • Everyone’s lives are filled with ups and downs and even some good things can come out of unfortunate events.   Model for your child what the upside might be to something negative that has happened in your life.  For example, you got a parking ticket, and even though you were upset initially, you were thankful that you have the money to pay it; a store clerk was mean to you and you felt lucky that you could dial up your best friend to talk about it.  The next time, your child is upset about something, eventually bring up what possible good outcomes could indirectly come as a result.  If they are unable to think of any, you can brainstorm with them, or let some time elapse and ask them again later.  Revisit the event several weeks from when it occurred to discuss it again.