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How to Raise a Happy, Successful Child: 25 Tips Backed by Science

Friday, 04.03.2016

By Daniel Wong

Every parent wants to raise children who are happy and successful. But there’s so much parenting advice out there. Who should you listen to? And which advice is trustworthy?

To answer those questions, I read through dozens of scientific articles and research journals. I’ve compiled this list of 25 scientific ways to bring up confident, well-adjusted children.

1. Become a happier person yourself.

Emotional problems in parents are linked to emotional problems in their children, as explained in Raising Happiness. Not only that, unhappy people are also less effective parents. Psychologists Carolyn and Philip Cowan have also found that happy parents are more likely to have happy children.

In one study in The Secrets of Happy Families, children were asked: “If you were granted one wish about your parents, what would it be?”

Their answer? No, it wasn’t that their parents would spend more time with them. Neither was it that their parents would nag at them less, or give them more freedom. The children’s wish was that their parents were less stressed and tired. So what can you do to become a happier person? Here’s an article with many practical suggestions.

2. Celebrate as a family, as often as you can.

Happy families celebrate both the small and big things: the end of a busy week, a good grade, the first day of school, a job promotion, holidays and festivals. The celebrations can be as simple as going to the park together, or as elaborate as throwing a surprise party.

Happy families lead to happy children, so make it a point to celebrate as a family often.

3. Prioritise your marriage over your children.

Family therapist David Code, author of To Raise Happy Kids, Put Your Marriage First, says: “Families centered on children create anxious, exhausted parents and demanding, entitled children. We parents today are too quick to sacrifice our lives and marriages for our kids.”  

He goes on to explain, “The greatest gift you can give your children is to have a fulfilling marriage.” I’m not a marriage expert, but here are some simple tips to strengthen your marriage (they’ve definitely helped me and my wife!):

  • Hug at least twice a day

  • Greet each other joyfully

  • Compliment each other

  • Hold hands often

  • Have regular dates

  • Spend at least 20 minutes in conversation every day

  • Say “I love you” every day

4. When your children talk to you, give them your undivided attention.

Communicating well with your children is vital if you want them to be happy and successful. One powerful way to do this is to give them your full attention whenever they speak to you. This means putting aside your newspapers and electronic devices, and really listening to what they have to say.

You’ll respond more thoughtfully, which will encourage your children to become more communicative.

5. Have regular meals together as a family.

Children who have regular meals with their families become more successful in almost every area, as explained in The Secrets of Happy Families.

These children have larger vocabularies, greater self-confidence, and get better grades. They are also less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, or develop psychological issues. And all because these families frequently have meals together!

6. Teach your children to manage their emotions.

John Gottman’s research shows that children who can regulate their emotions focus better, which is important for long-term success. These children even enjoy better physical health. To help your children manage their emotions, you should:

  • Demonstrate emotional self-management yourself

  • Empathise with your children

  • Explain to your children that all feelings are acceptable, but not all behaviors are

  • Acknowledge your children’s progress

7. Teach your children to build meaningful relationships.

Jack Shonkoff and Deborah Phillips found that having strong relationships is vital for children’s growth and psychological well-being. Children who lack these relationships do worse in school, are more likely to get in trouble with the law, and are more likely to have psychiatric problems.

What can parents do to help their children form meaningful relationships? Parents must respond appropriately to their children’s emotional cues (see Point #6). By doing so, their children will feel more secure. This forms the foundation of self-esteem.  Parents should create an environment for their children to form friendships, while also teaching them to resolve conflicts.

8. Set reasonable boundaries for your children.

Parents who set and enforce reasonable boundaries raise confident, successful children. Dr. Nancy Darling and Dr. Linda Caldwell found that effective parents explain the logic of the rules to their children. These parents state the principles behind the rules. In so doing, they form a closer, more understanding relationship with their children.

Darling says about parents who don’t set boundaries: “… kids take the lack of rules as a sign that their parents don’t actually care – that their parents don’t really want this job of being a parent.”  As a parent, it’s unhealthy to be too controlling. But children need boundaries to make the most of their potential.

9. Ensure that your children get enough sleep.

Research shows that children who get insufficient sleep:

  • Have poorer brain function

  • Can’t focus well

  • Are more likely to become obese

  • Are less creative

  • Are less able to manage their emotions

Scary list, isn’t it? To help your children get enough sleep, establish a consistent bedtime routine and limit stimulating activities after dinner. In addition, don’t allow screen time within one to two hours of bedtime. This is because the blue light from electronic devices affects sleep patterns and inhibits melatonin production.

You can also make your children’s bedroom as quiet and dark as possible, to improve their sleep quality.

10. Focus on the process, not the end result.

Parents who overemphasize achievement are more likely to bring up children who have psychological problems and engage in risky behavior, as described in Raising HappinessThe alternative to focusing on achievement?

Focus on the processAs Dr. Carol Dweck’s research shows, children who concentrate on effort and attitude – not on the desired result – end up attaining greater success in the long run. So look out for opportunities to acknowledge your children’s good behavior, attitude, and effort. As time goes by, they’ll naturally achieve better outcomes.

11. Give your children more time to play.

When I say “play,” I’m not referring to arcade or iPad games. I’m referring to unstructured playtime, preferably outdoors. Raising Happiness describes how playtime is essential for children’s learning and growth. The research even indicates that the less unstructured playtime children have, the more likely they are to have developmental issues related to their physical, emotional, social, and mental well-being.

Having a playful attitude is even linked to superior academic performance. So give your children more unstructured playtime, and they’ll become better students.

12. Reduce your children’s TV time.

The studies quoted in Raising Happiness show a strong link between increased happiness and less TV time. In other words, happy people watch less TV than unhappy people. A study of over 4,000 teenagers found that those who watched more TV were more likely to become depressive. This likelihood increased with more TV time.

Set an example for your children by limiting your own TV time. You can also have a family discussion to decide on your family’s TV-watching guidelines. (The research I found focused on TV time, but I’m sure the results would be similar for other kinds of screen time as well.)

13. Encourage your children to keep a gratitude journal.

Keeping a gratitude journal can increase your happiness levels by 25% over just 10 weeks, as shown by Dr. Robert Emmons’ researchI’m sure the results would have been even more impressive if the duration of the study was longer! Not only were the participants who kept a gratitude journal happier, they also had more hope for the future, and they fell sick less often.

How can you start keeping a gratitude journal?
Step 1: Get a notebook and pen, and put them on your bedside table.
Step 2: Every night before you go to sleep, write down two or three things that you’re thankful for. (Don’t worry about how “big” or “small” these things are.)

Here are some examples of what you might write:

  • Good health

  • Loving family

  • Beautiful sunset

  • Delicious chicken stew for dinner

  • Smooth traffic on the way home

14. Allow your children to make their own choices (including choosing their own punishment).

The Secrets of Happy Families discusses a University of California study, which identified the benefits of letting children plan their own schedules and set their own goals. These children were more likely to become disciplined and focused, and to make wiser decisions in the future.

The researchers also found that it’s helpful for parents to let their children choose their own punishments. Children who do so break the rules less frequently. Let your children pick their own activities too, whenever possible. Dr. Rich Gilman discovered that children who participate in structured school activities that they’ve chosen are 24% more likely to enjoy going to school.

So as your children get older, give them the freedom to make more of their own choices. They’ll become happier and more successful as a result.

15. Resolve the conflicts in your marriage.

Children whose parents have serious marital conflicts perform worse academically, are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol, and are more likely to have emotional problems, as shown by this study by Kelly Musick.

No surprises there. Through my work with students, I interact with many parents as well. I’m shocked by the number of families in which the parents have major ongoing marital issues. (Based on my observations, I estimate that 30% of these marriages are breaking apart.) This definitely impacts the children, who become less motivated, responsible, and engaged.

If you have issues in your marriage that have gone unresolved for months or years, please seek help from a therapist or counselor. Your children – and your marriage – are counting on you.

16. Encourage your children to serve others and be generous.

Dr. Mark Holder’s study of children aged 8 to 12 indicates that children who feel as if their lives are meaningful are also happier.

What makes them perceive their lives as more meaningful? When they serve other people, e.g. making a difference in the community, volunteering, helping their friends and family.

Being generous also makes children happier, as found by Dr. L.B. Aknin. She discovered that toddlers are happier when they give away treats to others than when they receive treats. Interestingly, toddlers become even happier when they give away treats that belong to them, rather than the same treats that don’t belong to them. So encourage your children to serve others and be generous, and find ways to do this as a family too.

17. Promote a healthy body image.

Having a healthy body image is especially important for girls, although it can affect boys as wellAccording to a study conducted by the Institute of Child Health, one-third of 13-year-old girls are upset over their weight. In addition, research by Dove found that 69% of mothers make negative comments about their bodies in front of their children. This affects their children’s own body image.

Here are some ways to promote a healthy body image in your children:

  • Focus on the health benefits of exercise, rather than on how it affects your appearance

  • Focus more on your children’s character and skills development, and less on their appearance

  • Exercise together as a family

  • Talk to your children about how the media influences the way we view our bodies

  • Don’t talk about how guilty you feel after eating certain foods

  • Don’t pass judgment on other people’s appearance

18. Don’t shout at your children.

Dr. Laura Markham describes how yelling at your children can quickly turn your home into a perpetual battleground. Children who live in such a hostile environment are more likely to feel insecure and anxious.

If you’re on the verge of losing your temper, remove yourself from the situation. Take 10 minutes to collect your thoughts before speaking to your child again. Practice empathising with your children’s feelings through a process called “emotion coaching.” If it helps, imagine that your friend or boss is there with you in the room. This way, you’ll speak more calmly to your children.

19. Teach your children to forgive.

Dr. Martin Seligman, widely recognized as the father of positive psychology, has identified forgiveness as a key element that leads to happiness in children. Unforgiveness has even been linked to depression and anxiety.

Children who learn to forgive are able to turn negative feelings about the past into positive ones. This increases their levels of happiness and life satisfaction. Be a role model for your children. Don’t hold grudges against people who have wronged you, and take the initiative to resolve personal conflicts. Discuss the importance of forgiveness with your children, so that they’ll turn forgiveness into a lifestyle.

20. Teach your children to think positively.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Seligman also found that children who are more optimistic tend to be happier. How can you teach your children to think positively?

Encouraging them to keep a gratitude journal is one way (see Point #13). Here are some additional ways:

  • Develop a positive attitude yourself

  • Don’t complain

  • Don’t gossip

  • Don’t make a huge deal out of spilled drinks, broken plates, etc.

  • See the good in others and acknowledge it

  • Teach your children to phrase things positively, e.g. “I like playing with David and Sarah” instead of “I hate playing with Tom”

  • Tell your children about the challenges you face, and how those challenges are helping you grow

21. Create a family mission statement.

Bruce Feiler, author of The Secrets of Happy Familiesadvises parents to develop a family mission statement. This statement describes your family’s values and collective vision. Just about every organisation has a mission statement, and so should your family. Here’s an excellent step-by-step guide to creating your family mission statement. My own family has done it – the process was extremely meaningful!

22. Have regular family meetings.

Feiler’s other recommendation is to have a 20-minute family meeting once a week. During the meeting, he suggests that you ask all family members these three questions:

  • What did you do well in the past week?

  • What did you not do so well in the past week?

  • What will you work on in the coming week?

When I was younger, my family used to have regular meetings. These meetings brought the family closer together, and reinforced the importance of family relationships. To this day, I still remember how I excited I was about attending those meetings. So I encourage you to start this practice, if you haven’t already done so.

23. Share your family history with your children.

The research shows that children who know more about their family history have higher levels of self-esteem. This contributes to their success and happiness later in life. Dr. Marshall Duke and Dr. Robyn Fivush have developed a “Do You Know” scale that lists 20 questions, which children should be able to answer about their family history.

These questions include “Do you know some of the illnesses and injuries that your parents experienced when they were younger?” and “Do you know some things that happened to your mom or dad when they were in school?”. Sharing your family history strengthens family bonds, and helps your children to become more resilient.

24. Create family rituals.

Family rituals increase family cohesiveness and enable children to develop socially, as shown by Dr. Dawn Eaker and Dr. Lynda Walters’ researchMake a conscious effort to create these rituals in your family.

Here are some examples:

  • Have breakfast as a family every Saturday

  • Have a family board game night

  • Cook dinner as a family

  • Go for evening walks

  • Hold a weekly family meeting (see Point #22)

  • Go camping as a family once a year

  • “Date” each of your children once a month

25. Help your children to find a mentor.

Children who have a trusted adult in their life (apart from their parents) have 30% higher levels of life satisfaction than children who don’t, Dr. Lisa Colarossi has discovered.

You can find a mentor for your child by asking your friend to take on the role, by encouraging your child to join an organization like the Boys & Girls Club, or by signing up for a mentoring program (like this one that I offer).  Here’s a useful article with more information and guidelines.

The bottom line

Parenting is a noble calling, but it isn’t easy to bring up confident, well-adjusted children. But with these 25 tips, I hope the task is a little bit less daunting. (I’m definitely going to implement these tips as my wife and I raise our son, and our future children too!) 

So take it one step at a time, one day at a time, and one tip at a time. I know you’re up to the challenge. :)



This article was first published here.

Daniel Wong specialises in helping students to become both happy and successful. He also shares with parents what they can do to help. Download this FREE bonus: an easy-to-use summary of this article, which includes 3 bonus tips.

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