So much goes into raising happy kids. There are things you can’t control, like genes and personality. And there are circumstances - enough food, a secure home, responsible and loving adults. But I found myself wondering about what it is that parents do to keep our children happy, or at least content (most of the time!). Here are some of the things that I think work for me and my family.
There is a much-quoted Unicef study from 2013, that reveals that Dutch children are the happiest in the world. One of the reasons the study gives for this state of Dutch contentment is that children get to spend a lot of time with BOTH their parents. Dutch fathers are happy to be hands-on and involved in their children’s lives. Work schedules are apparently more flexible, and parents will structure their hours so that they get to spend more time with their children.
My husband and I both work from home. This isn’t all as fun as it sounds, and a large part of our afternoons are spent yelling at our children to let us finish what we’re doing. But what it does mean is that if one of us is busy, the other can do the school lift. Every now and then, one of us can attend a cake and candy sale or a swimming gala. And because we’re both equally involved in our children’s lives, our children can rely on either of us for whatever they need.
This is a far cry from my own childhood. I grew up with a single mother, and my entire universe revolved around her. I feel that by splitting the parenting equally with my husband, my children are far more secure in their worlds. This isn’t meant to make single parents feel terrible though, and I think that a lot can be done to encourage a child to feel that they are raised by a village – if you’re in this alone, engage those grandparents, aunties, uncles and special friends.
As I’ve explained, my kids get to see quite a lot of me. But I also try to remember that other pointer in raising happy children: that the quality of time, not quantity, is what really matters. I can’t simply say, “But I am always here,” and leave it at that. They need focused time with their parents.
So, I try to make a point of spending quality time with my children (and without my phone!). I take them out separately for a milkshake and a chat. My husband and I alternate bedtime story, chat and snuggle time with each of our children, so that they get undivided attention from one of us at the end of every day. When I feel that I have yelled, “leave me alone!” a few too many times, I take comfort in the fact that they do get these special moments.
Before I had children, I was going to be one of those mothers who didn’t allow babies to prevent them from living their lives. My babies were going to go everywhere with me and enjoy playing with toys or reading quietly in a corner, while I got on with things. Oh, also, they would just fall asleep when they were tired, no matter where we happened to be.
Boy was I ever in for a rude awakening. When we finally ventured out to a friend’s thirtieth when our oldest child was six weeks old (it was a dinner, not a nightclub), my baby screamed the whole time. We took her to a quiet room, we rocked and shushed, but she was having none of it. We stayed to sing Happy Birthday, then made our apologies and left.
We soon learned that our daughter needed help getting to sleep, she needed to be in her own space, and we couldn’t muck around with bedtime. Once we implemented a sleep routine, we were all much happier. This routine, which we repeated with our second child (although he didn’t need it to be quite so rigid) continues to serve us well, even though they are now both at primary school.
There are, among my friends, people who cracked the “take the baby to any old where at any old time” style of parenting. And well done to them. I don’t think their children are any less happy for it. So perhaps this point should actually be: “Respond to your child’s specific need for routine”. I did, and it made the world of difference.
Another stated reason for the happiness of Dutch children is that they have a lot of freedom to roam. They ride their bikes to the park or school unsupervised at a very young age. This is lovely and idyllic, but The Netherlands is not South Africa.
It’s not safe for our children to roam the streets alone but I have tried to instil in my children a sense of security in their immediate surroundings. I let them run ahead, explore, make friends with other children at the park and play far from me. I try not to fill them with fear about what might happen to them, while still trying to equip them with street smarts and common sense. It’s a fine balancing act. But I hope that they are learning to engage with their world with confidence and resilience.
My children fight. I often look at them having a go at each other and think wistfully of my own peaceful childhood as an only child. I was happy on my own, and engaged in hours of creative play, reading or hanging out with whatever responsible adult was in my orbit. My children spend a lot of time cross with each other – and then with me as a result of my intervention – because there are two of them.
But here’s the thing. While I may have had a more peaceful childhood, and didn’t feel lonely on my own, I didn’t deal well with other children. They were too loud and harsh for my sensitive soul, I wasn’t good at sharing or compromise, and preferred the company of adults. My children love other children, don’t mind their noise, and have a better ability to share and compromise than I ever did. I don’t think that every family should have more than one child (you will be richer, and your home will be far more peaceful if you don’t), but I do think that having each other has taught my children more about their place in the world and given them an ease of association with others the same age as them.
They say that a parent’s affection has long-lasting benefits for a child’s social, academic and emotional wellbeing. Well, good news for me – I am a naturally physically affectionate person. I hug and kiss my children a lot. But my daughter isn’t actually that much of a hugger. So, I take care to show her affection in other ways – spending time with her, engaging with her ideas, praising her and doing things that she wants to do together.
I like the approach of the Five Love Languages in helping to identify how others express and understand love and try to adapt my approach to what my children need from me.
If you were to ask my children what would make them happy, the answer would probably involve iPads, ice cream and no bedtime. They may think this would make them happy, and in the short term, they’d probably be right, BUT any parent will tell you that this vision of happiness would probably result in an overtired, overwrought child who can’t sleep. So, my final word on ensuring the happiness of children is that you can’t always give them what they want, and that you sometimes have to be “literally the worst parent in the world!” to keep them from missing out on precious sleep, contracting lifestyle diseases, and not learning to engage with the real world.
With all of this energy going into my children’s happiness, how are they doing? I think if they look back, as adults, they will remember their childhoods as happy. We are very fortunate to be able to offer the security of a two-parent, two-children, just-about-enough-money home, and there are many things in their lives that give them pleasure – even if there is a limit on the iPads time and ice cream that they get. The one thing they’ll always know for sure is that their mother loves them fiercely.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of 1Life or its employees.