Children have never been perfect at listening to their parents, but they have never failed to imitate them.
When you ask parents what they want for their children, what are the most common replies? They want their children to be smart and happy, of course.
From what we’ve studied, the education and well-being of their children is more important to parents than just about anything else — health care, cost of living, public safety, and even their own well-being. And believe it or not, most non-parents also say they’re concerned about the well-being and intellectual growth of society’s youth; this concern seems to cut cleanly across gender, ethnicity, age, income and political affiliation.
As new parents, Angel and I get it. We feel the same way. We’re concerned about our son’s education and happiness. So we’ve spent quite a bit of time researching just that — how to raise a smart, happy child. If you’re looking to do the same, I’ll save you some trouble. Here’s what our extensive research tells us:
1. Walk the talk — always set a great example.
It’s not what you say, it’s how you live your life every day. Don’t tell your children how to live; LIVE and let them watch you. Practice what you preach or don’t preach at all. Walk the talk. Your children look up to you and they will emulate your actions and strive to become who you are.
So BE who you want them to be.
In other words, be the change you want to see in your child. Give what you expect, reflect what you desire, become what you respect, and mirror what you admire. Every single day.
Your children are the greatest gift life will give you, and their souls the heaviest responsibility it will place in your hands. Take time with them, and teach them to have faith in themselves by being a person they can have faith in — a person they can trust without question. When you are old, nothing else you’ve done will have mattered as much.
2. Reduce YOUR stress, and thus the stress level in the household.
Not easy, I know, but believe it or not what children want from their parents more than anything else is for them to be happier and less stressed.
In a survey of a thousand families discussed in the book The Secrets of Happy Families, a researcher asked children, “If you were granted one wish about your parents, what would it be?” Most parents predicted their children would say something about spending more time with them. But they were wrong. The children’s number one wish was that their parents were less tired and less stressed. They wanted their parent’s household to be a less stressful place to live.
The book goes on to discuss various studies proving that parental stress weakens children’s brains, depletes their immune systems, and increases their risk of other unhealthy mental and physical ailments.
3. Believe in your children.
The greatest compliment you can give to a child is to believe in them and let them know you care. When you see something true, good and beautiful in them, don’t hesitate to express your admiration. When you see something that is not true, good and beautiful in them, don’t neglect to give them your wholehearted assistance and guidance.
The simple act of believing that your child is capable and worthy makes a big difference. It gives them confidence and makes them feel qualified to do great things.
In The Heart of Social Psychology, a research study is discussed where elementary school teachers were told that they had certain students in their class who were academically above average. These students were in fact selected at random (they were not necessarily above average in any way). Absolutely nothing else was done by the researchers to select these children. Yet by the end of the school year, 30 percent of the children arbitrarily named as “above average” had gained an average of 22 IQ points, and almost all had gained at least 10 IQ points.
In other words, when the teachers were told certain children were “better,” those kids did better in school. When someone you respect believes in you, it helps you be the best you can be. Give your children this opportunity.
4. Praise your children for their effort, not their intelligence.
Based on the point above, this might sound a bit counterintuitive, but when you praise a child’s efforts you are bringing attention to something they can easily control — the amount of effort they put in. This is immensely important because it teaches them to persist, and that personal growth through hard work is possible. They come to see themselves as “in control” of their success in life.
Emphasizing God-given intelligence takes progress out of your child’s control, and it provides no good recipe for responding to a failure. In turn, your child may begin to think that innate intelligence is always going to be a missing ingredient for them, and disregard the importance of their effort to learn and grow.
With that said, a word to the wise: Don’t over-praise your children for no reason. Make sure your gestures of praise are warranted. Because if every single move your child makes is based only on rewards like constant praise, when the praise stops, the effort stops too. And that’s not good because it means they won’t be able to perform well when you’re not around.
The best thing to do? Again, praise purposefully when it’s truly warranted. And when your child gets stuck, give them a chance to learn that frustrating issues can be worked through.
5. Don’t read TO your children, read WITH them.
Got a youngster who’s learning to read? Don’t let them just stare at the pictures in a book while you do all the work by reading every word to them. Instead, call attention to the words. Point to them. Point to the pictures that illustrate them.
Read WITH them, not to them.
Research shows this tactic helps build a child’s reading comprehension. When shared book reading is enriched with explicit attention to the development of a child’s reading skills, it truly becomes an effective vehicle for promoting early literacy. Perhaps even more importantly than that, it makes learning more fun. And as you know, fun times are happy times in a child’s mind.
6. Eat dinner together as a family.
Eating dinner together makes a difference. According to The Secrets of Happy Families, children who have dinner with their families do better across pretty much every conceivable metric. “A recent wave of research shows that children who eat dinner with their families are less likely to drink, smoke, do drugs, get pregnant, become depressed, and develop eating disorders.”
Additional research also suggests that children who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem in the long run. The most comprehensive survey done on this topic, a University of Michigan report that examined how American children spent their time between 1981 and 1997, discovered that “the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.”
Even if eating dinner together every night isn’t possible, you should make it a point to eat together as a family at least once a week.
7. Create logical, reasonable rules and boundaries for your children.
Children don’t do well in a free-for-all environment. It’s a myth that being too strict guarantees rebellion and being permissive drives better behavior. From the research we’ve done, it’s clear that children who go crazy and get in trouble mostly have parents who don’t set reasonable rules and boundaries. If their parents are loving and accepting no matter what they do — even when they are unruly — children take their parent’s lack of rules as a sign that they don’t really care about them — that they don’t really want the job of being parents in the first place.
On the flip side, parents who are consistent in enforcing rules and boundaries are often the same parents who become the closest with their children. According to a Penn State study by Dr. Nancy Darling and Dr. Linda Caldwell, parents that set logical rules pertaining to key principles of influence, and explain why the rules are there, engage more closely with the children and ultimately have a happier, healthier relationship with them.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should over-do the rules, or make rules just for the sake of making rules. Parents that are too controlling raise children that are stifled and bored. And stifled, bored kids are likely to rebel.
Again, via Dr. Linda Caldwell, “Even busy kids get bored, for two common reasons. First, they are doing lots of activities only because their parents signed them up — there’s no intrinsic motivation. Second, they’re so accustomed to their parents filling their free time that they don’t know how to productively fill it on their own.” And thus, they often turn to mischief or even substance abuse when their parents back off or aren’t around.
8. Give your children an opportunity to make healthy peer relationships.
The peer group your children associate with has an enormous effect on their long-term happiness and educational aspirations. As parents, we sometimes only talk to our children about peer pressure when it’s negative, but more often than not, it’s positive. Living in a nice child-friendly neighborhood, going to highly rated schools, and making sure your children associate with the right peers can make a world of difference.
In his book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor shows that the easiest way for a college kid to improve their grade point average and self-confidence in class is to simply pick a smart, supportive roommate. He found that “when students with low grade-point averages simply began rooming with higher-scoring students, their grade-point averages increased.” These students, according to the researchers, “appeared to infect each other with good and bad habits — such that a roommate with a high grade-point average would drag upward the grade point average of his lower-scoring roommate.”
Bottom line: As a human being, you are the average of the people you spend the most time with. And that’s why it’s not always where you are in life, but who you have by your side that matters most. The same is true for your children.
9. Make sure your children get enough sleep every night.
A tired mind is rarely constructive or content. And it’s even worse for children than it is for adults. According to the insightful book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, missing an hour of sleep turns a sixth grader’s brain into that of a fourth grader. Even a loss of one hour of sleep is equivalent to the loss of two years of cognitive development to the typical child.
There’s also a direct correlation between good grades and the average amount of sleep a child gets. Teens who received A’s average about fifteen more minutes of sleep than B students, who in turn average fifteen more minutes than C’s, and so on. The data from NurtureShock was almost an exact replication of results from an earlier study of over 3,000 high schoolers that’s referenced in the book. Certainly, these are averages, but the consistency of the two studies stands out. For children, every fifteen minutes of sleep counts.
10. Help your children maintain a gratitude journal.
In 1,000 Little Things Happy, Successful People Do Differently, Angel and I discuss the powerful benefits of keeping a gratitude journal. And the good news is, it works for children too.
Again, via the NurtureShock: “In one celebrated example, Dr. Robert Emmons, of the University of California at Davis, asked teenage students to keep a gratitude journal — over ten weeks, the young undergrads listed five things that had happened in the last week which they were thankful for. The results were surprisingly powerful — the students who kept the gratitude journal were 25% happier, were more optimistic about the future, and got sick less often during the controlled trial. They even got more exercise.”
Bottom line: Children who keep a gratitude journal are happier, more optimistic, and healthier. As soon as your child is old enough, help them start one.
Angel and I have learned a lot from the research we’ve done, but one thing really stands out to me. It’s clear that truly happy, well-nurtured children become successful people almost automatically. In other words, healthy parenting creates happier children that are more likely to turn into successful, accomplished adults in the long run.
Also, happiness by itself, for all of us, is a tremendous advantage in a society that emphasizes high performance. On average, happy people are more successful than their unhappy counterparts in all walks of life. Because they feel better, they put in higher levels of effort and get better performance reviews, have more prestigious careers, earn higher salaries, and they’re also more likely to maintain happier, healthier relationships.
The floor is yours…
What would you add to the list? What else can parents do to raise smart, happy children? What has personal experience taught you? Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts and insights.
Photo by: Irfan Cheema