I ran across some wonderful parenting advice in an article that has nothing to do with parenting. The curator of a model railroad museum explained that hobbies can “really bring that extra spark, the extra ingredient to bring that fulfillment. When you have that, that is a happiness you earn and that is the most meaningful kind.” That phrase “happiness you earn” stuck in my head. It reminded me that an important part of parenting is empowering our kids to create their own happiness.

           This task can be particularly hard when we are raising other people’s children. Foster children may be with us for only a short time. Our stepchildren may be in our homes only for weekend visits. Even within our limits, however, we can encourage our kids to learn the art of happiness.

We Can’t Give Our Kids Happiness

           First, we have to realize that can’t give our kids true happiness like we can give them shelter and other necessities. Nor can we buy happiness for them through giving them good things. Actually, trying to do that may be counterproductive. Research indicates that people who value material possessions are less happy and more prone to mental health issues. Of course, happiness requires a base line of meeting basic needs, but above that, few studies show greater happiness as purchases increase. Other research indicates that experiences are more important for happiness than possessions.

           We want our children to be happy people, and we always face the temptation to try to gift happiness to them. We try to increase their self-esteem, shield them from events that might hurt their feelings, and protect them from things that make them unhappy. Unfortunately, our good intentions don’t work very well. The only lasting happiness our kids will have is the happiness that they create themselves. Our job is to help our children develop the skills they need for that task and to show them how to use them.

We Can Model Attitudes that Lead to Happiness

           The best thing we can do, no matter how little time we have, is demonstrate the attitudes that lead to long-term happiness. Positive character traits, such as honesty, mood regulation, deferred gratification, an attitude of gratitude, and kindness, are a few of the skills that leads to long-term happiness. Like most things we want our kids to learn, these are not traits that children learn through lectures. We have to show them how those attitudes work in real life.

           Of course, lectures are much easier for us than cultivating positive character traits. It's hard to develop consistent good habits. And we always sound much wiser in our lectures than we are in our day-to-day lives. But our kids will learn best what we show them, no matter how many times we tell them something. So work on your own attitudes, and show your kids how creating happiness works in the real world.

           We can also show them how our happiness doesn’t depend on our circumstances. They need to see us go through difficult times with some level of optimism and grace. Finding that grace can be hard, particularly if rejection from them is one of the difficult things we are going through. But the more we can keep our equilibrium and reach for happiness, the more our kids will learn about doing the same in their lives.

We Can Create Safe Spaces for Them

           Children can’t be happy until they feel physically and emotionally safe. Creating friendships or learning new skills requires taking risks. Our children will have a hard time taking those risks if they don't believe they have a safe place to land. We have to be an emotionally safe space for our kids, providing love and support no matter how stupid we privately think they are being. They need a safe foundation from which to launch themselves. It’s essential that our kids believe that we have their backs and that we will continue to love them no matter what mistakes they make. Only safe children can be truly happy children.

We Can Show Them How To Build Relationships

           One of the most important components to happiness is having positive relationships. Show your kids how to develop healthy and meaningful relationships.

            Start with your marriage. Far too few children see a stable marriage from the inside. If you are a stepparent or foster parent, your kids likely have lived through one (or more) divorces. They need to see how adults build stable marriages. Make your marriage a priority so that your children can see how to build healthy and stable adult relationships.

           Do what you can to encourage your kids’ relationship with their biological parents. I’ve written on this quite a bit, so look through the archives for that topic. For now, I’ll just emphasize that, no matter how wonderful we are, our kids need to have the best relationship they can with their biological parents. No matter what we think about those parents, we need to do all we can within the bounds of safety to support our children’s relationship with them.

           Finally, we need to encourage their friendships. Most childhood friendships don’t have a long shelf life, but learning to make a social connection is an important life skill. There will be many ways we can help, ranging from chaperoning to chauffeuring, and maybe even offering advice.

           We may have to set boundaries to keep our kids safe until they figure out how to set healthy boundaries for themselves. But we need to be certain that we are avoiding real danger, and not just catering to our comfort level. More and more research is showing that kids need unsupervised time to learn how to negotiate with each other rather than having adults step in. I’ve also written about research indicating that kids benefit from risky play in ways that we can’t replicate in adult-controlled environments. To the extent that court orders and local laws allow, we need to realize that being effective parents involves staying out of our kids’ way and letting them learn for themselves how to resolve conflict with other children.

We Can Help Them Accept Sadness

           One myth that modern culture, especially social media, teaches is that happiness is like a light switch — you are either happy or unhappy — and that being happy requires the switch to be on all the time. Reality is much more complicated. Many of us have lost older family members, and know that we have to give ourselves time to be sad and grieve the loss. But we can move through sadness in the short term and be happy again.

           Our kids likely won’t have the life experiences or emotional intelligence to understand that truth. If we try to explain it to them, we may come across as uncaring or even downplaying their losses. We usually are better off just empathizing with them, offering support, while they work through their sadness. We may be able to talk with them about their negative thoughts, or they may need professional help to process their sad feelings. Either way, we need to find the best ways for each individual child to understand that, even with seasons of sadness, they still can be happy in the long run.

We Can Teach Them the Power of Giving

           One wonderful way to empower our kids is to encourage them to give to other people. It’s not only the right thing to do, but even small acts of kindness return all sorts of benefits. Helping others is a good reminder that all sorts of people have all sorts of problems, and can help prompt a grateful attitude. Once again, we can’t lecture our children into those realizations, but we can give them opportunities to learn those lessons on their own.

           Giving to other people also is a proven way to become a happier person. We are hard-wired to need a purpose in life, and part of growing up for our children is figuring out that purpose. Helping other people can provide a way for them to find a purpose outside themselves. If we can get our kids involved in service projects, we can help them immensely. Even better, if we can get the whole family involved as a team, we can build stronger relationships with our children and between family members.

We Can Focus on Effort, Not Results

           The final, and maybe most important, thing we can do is to focus on our kids’ efforts, not the results they achieve. The principle is part of controlling what we can control (effort and attitude) and letting the rest go. It’s also part of encouraging our kids to step out of their comfort zone and take some risks.

           It’s difficult as a parent to encourage our kids to take risks, but the fact is that they never grow or learn skills without doing so. Children on sports teams, for example, don’t learn new skills without practice and some risk of physical injury. No human endeavor is free of risk. Even relationships require emotional risks. If all we ever teach children is to stay perfectly safe, then they will never take any of the risks that are necessary for personal growth.

           Of course, we limit the risk as much as we can, such as using batting helmets, catchers’ masks, and other precautions. When I took judo many years ago, the first skill we learned was how to fall safely. There is a difference, however, between managing risks and avoiding risks. It is the former skill that we need to teach our children.

           We also can model for them how to deal with the failure that comes from trying new things. We can show them how to use positive self-talk to say, “I haven’t learned how to do that yet.” Or “Well, that tells me that still need to work on that skill.”Or, best of all, “Next time, I’ll know how to do that differently.” Learning from failure and not fearing it can make a big difference in a child's chances of having a happier life.

           Similarly, when we praise our children, we can praise their efforts and hard work rather than merely their success and failure. Research indicates that telling a child, “I’m proud of you for not giving up” builds confidence and self-esteem much more certainly than saying, “You are very smart.” We can help them develop positive emotions about their ability to successfully resolve whatever emotional problems their trauma has created. Praising a child's efforts may be the strongest way we can have a positive impact on their self-esteem and confidence.

           Our kids who have suffered trauma particularly need to hear encouragement. They know, even if they can’t put it into words, that they have a long way to go to get past their trauma. They need to hear us say that we know they are facing difficult situations and dealing with big emotions, and that we are proud of them for not giving up on themselves.

           Not that we need to ignore completely the progress they have made. It is a good thing to help them count up the small things that they have accomplished. But we should make that discussion part of our encouragement about the effort they have made.

           It can be heartbreaking to see our kids unhappy, and it is very tempting to try to fix their problems for them. We can only give them care and safe spaces. They have to create lasting happiness for themselves. Our job is to help them find the tools and show them how to use those tools to earn the happiness that lasts a lifetime.

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.