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Comments

Menita

Oh what a chord this strikes! I had a very happy early childhood, and then it all went to hell (really, HELL) in a handbasket, so this is on my mind quite a bit. I'd just add "respectful playfulness" to what Moxie and Sandra wrote. What I mean by that is joining in on their interests and games on their own terms. It seems to me that this validates their ideas, it makes my daughter tremendously happy when she feels she is in charge of the games, and that I enjoy playing whatever she comes up with (and the thing is, I do). It means giving up thinking about what it is you are doing and submerging yourself in their point of view for a while. And it's pretty cool.

Sandra

Thanks for posting my question, Moxie! In the meanwhile, I did some Googling about this -- there are surprisingly few books and online discussions about this topic. One book that sounds interesting (I haven't read it yet, but I might) is Carl Lennertz: Cursed by a Happy Childhood; mostly a collection of a father's memories and anecdotes, written for his daughter.

Anyway, I came up with a few other ideas too...
- avoid preaching and lecturing; my dad used to do this way too much, and it just resulted in bitterness and a bad atmosphere -- didn't teach me anything substantial, really.
- and (I found this one online, and I think it's great) cultivate nice memories by regularly recalling fun times, by showing your kids photographs and other souvenirs of happy things you did together when they were younger. When doing this, you help them build happy memories. Sounds a bit manipulative at first, but I think there's a great principle behind it: learning to emphasize the good things that happened to you in the past will help you become a more joyful person in general.

Lisa V

I had a happy childhood and my parents divorced when I was 11. There are things that when looked at in the abstract I go "whoa!" But my parents always not only loved me, but liked me. They made me believe I was an interesting, worthy person. The enjoyed spending time with me. They also laughed a lot. They taught me to see the humor in situations, because they always did. They taught me to laugh at myself and at others (not in ways that would hurt them), and lighten up. I think I do the same for my kids. I hope.

My great-great grandmother had a sampler that said "Do unto your children as you wish your parents had done unto you." I sometimes that was insulting to parents, but I take it now as learn from your parents mistakes and don't repeat them if you can help it. However, we will make our own mistakes instead.

hedra

My own childhood was rather a melange of really great and pretty horrific, with a good dose of so-so on either side of the line. Looking back, I see the daily life as being mostly pleasant, the time with siblings as being alternately challenging and joyful, and my time alone being alternately challenging and joyful. The pattern was that joy came from just 'being', and a lot of the pain was 'other people's issues' inserted in the program.

I think that's a large part of why when we decided to have kids, I went straight into therapy. After our first, I went back again, having seen that being a parent was bringing out things I had not expected. I did not want to see my own pain reflected back at me. I wanted instead to be able to cleanly mourn my own losses while I celebrated my child's wholeness.

I've done more than that, but that was the baseline. So my list of 'ways to help them have a happy childhood':

1) Handle your own problems so they don't become your child's problems, too. Get professional help if you suspect you maybe might possibly need it even a bit, so you can be sure you're not missing something.

2) Slow down. Time moves differently in childhood. When I realize I am moving too fast, trying to do too much, I stop and just stare at the clouds until I can see the slow pattern shift in them. It re-sets my pacing to something slower, more natural.

3) Enlist help. Parenthood is a LOT about the grungy, hard work side of it - health care, teaching, discipline, feeding, clothing, cleaning up, and not all of it is fun-fun-fun. I came to the conclusion that what I would be least able to do on a daily basis was 'enchantment' - I wanted my children to be enchanted by the world, to see its magic, to have their eyes wide with wonder. That plus everything else is a tall order. So I asked my mom if she would take on the job - provide Enchantment. She was THRILLED. It gave her the basis and boundaries she needed to grandmother without stepping on my toes, and a focus for activities, gifts, trips, and even her house... Her yard is now full of secret and magical places. She takes her local grandkids to museums, to ride on Tall Ships, to meet a REAL Princess (from Sweden), and bakes cookies with them, and joins them on dressup parades around the block. The distant grandchild, she ships unexpected packages with books and treasures, and calls regularly to have magical talks on the phone. I also enlist the help of other relatives, and friends, and teachers. It doesn't have to only come from me.

4) Show your pride, awe, and wonder. Kids are as astonishing to us as the world is to them. Let them see that in your eyes (I guess that's the 'eyes light up' thing Moxie mentioned)... I do this intentionally, in various forms, from showing up for birthday parties and assemblies at school, to the way I greet them after school, to how I reach out my arms for each of them in turn as I take them to the car. I also let them catch me watching them with my love and pride showing, as they go about their day.

5) Play outside. We fenced our yard, so they have a good place to play in nature. That freedom to get muddy, chew on grass stems, and stare at bugs busily working was a huge joy for me as a child. Nature is a wonder, even inside the fence. Our yard is tiny, so we've worked on having the space be child-friendly where it cannot be expansive. Many textures, layers, colors to experience, a loop to run, a huge rock to climb (okay that was a gift for me, but the kids get great joy from it). I get down on my hands and knees when I'm planning additions/changes, to see what they see. Each child also has their own garden, for which they help pick and plant the plants.

6) Listen. Okay, this is the one I'm terrible at. I get twitchy very quickly when a story goes on with no sign of ending. My DH is pretty good at it, and at gently reminding me when I'm in mid-failure on listening (and on pinging me to stop in the first place to listen, too). Having someone you can trust to coach you in your weak areas is a big help (I also have some teacher-friends who are great at this, plus several of my siblings whose observations I rely on, etc.).

7) Astonish them now and then. Sometimes we go out for breakfast, or have cereal for dinner, or go to the park, just 'because'. It makes them laugh and jump up and down and squeal. Say Yes unexpectedly, give them 'drive by hugs' (especially when they're older), give them flowers, pick them up from school early and go somewhere fun. It works when we're courting a partner, and while we have to tune it to the children's developmental level (dinner in a fancy restaurant may NOT work out!), it still generates that 'you thought of what might make me happy, now I feel special' reaction.

Kelly

A great question. I had a relatively happy childhood, all things considered. My parents were not perfect, not even close: my mother was frequently depressed (I remember vividly, on several occasions, her standing at the kitchen window crying), and my father had a quick and frightening temper. But they both improved dramatically upon the parenting they received.

Like my mother, I've dealt with depression, even being hospitalized in my early 20s. As a parent, I've made sure that when I feel depressed to address it. I wanted very much for my children not to witness any depair on my part. I remember wondering if my mother would ever be happy, and I didn't want my children growing up with that on their shoulders, feeling in some way inadequate.

I want them to think of me and their father as generally happy people who are happy to have them in our lives.

On a less heavy note, I've tried to constrain myself about things I consider a tad 'improper.' I guess I'm sort of anal. The slide is for going down, pictures are for smiling, clothes are to be worn, etc. With a 3-year old, one could constantly nitpick. So I've told myself to pick my battles, be firm and consistent where it matters, and to relax. Let them have fun. And have fun with them. They'll always remember you getting down on the floor with them, and going into their world.

Nancy

LisaV, I love your list item #3 about enchantment! What a clever way to engage grandparents (or aunts or uncles or friends)!! I can totally envision my mom taking this role, as it comes quite naturally for her with the grandkiddos she has. Thank you for the brilliant suggestion! :-)

One of my fondest memories of my mom when I was a kid was that she colored with me. I was sometimes a little annoyed because her coloring was so pretty and even and within the lines, but I loved that we did it together. She tells me that it was one of her favorite things to do too... always very relaxing, and an opportunity for special togetherness.

Steffy

Simply do things WITH them. Don't just had them crayons, sit down and draw your own pictures, and ask them what they think of it. Make your own play-doh figures, climb on the playground stuff (at least the stuff you can't break!) with them, play tag with them. It doesn't have to be organized or expensive.
As they get older, go to the games with them. Have them show you the papers they bring home from school and explain them to you (my kids LOVE this!).
Most of my happy childhood memories are of times we dd things together as a family.

sara

I love what everyone has written. I also had a mixed childhood, and the unhappiness I remember mostly came from my parents' unhappiness. So I think that if my husband and I take care of ourselves, and each other, and make sure we are following our own bliss, our son will benefit greatly.

When my son was first born, I thought a lot about what my parents hadn't done for me. I came to the conclusion that they had given me everything they could, in terms of knowledge and life skills, but there were many things they didn't have and so couldn't pass on (like the ability to tell someone when they're angry, instead of blowing up at them, or the ability to talk about negative feelings at all). This helped me feel so much more compassionate toward my parents, and also lead me to think about what skills *I* don't have, and whether I can develop them or find other ways for my son to learn them.

All that is to say that I think passing on emotional skills is really important in helping a child be happy - enabling them to trust their emotions, express them, and connect with others emotionally. Most of that is done by modeling that behavior, which for me is the hardest work of parenting.

Great question!

Dr. Pugawug

This is a great thread, Sandra, thanks for raising this topic.

In spite of a mean divorce, I think I had a pretty happy childhood overall. Here's what made a difference to me:

- Being present. I could tell when my parents were tuned into me, or when they were around but not really paying attention.

- Being part of a close-knit community. For us, it was grandparents and cousins in the same city, and other kids in the neighborhood. Lots of family visits on weekends, and unstructured play time on weekdays.

- Going on walks. Really observing what was growing and changing around us. Being kind to animals.

- Special routines with a parent, like recycling cans and getting to keep the change, or drinking the suds off my dad's beer, or getting a cookie with my mom after ice skating lessons. Special treats can be familiar, too.

- Knowing that my parents respected my BIG choices. When I really wanted to switch schools in 5th grade, or when I was sick and tired of Sunday school, my parents listened.

Again, great post!

Sarah

For the most part I had a very happy childhood. The parts that weren't happy were largely due to my own internal issues as a child (I was an anxious child, but my parents didn't make me that way, I just did it on my own). In particular, having my mother around during the day was wonderful. She was totally "into" us kids, and she was very playful and imaginative. We lived in the country, so we could play outside with very few boundaries safely. I felt (mostly) respected and protected, and while they expected a lot of us they made it clear that they loved us unconditionally. I hope to do the same for my children!

Melis

I think it's also important to allow your child to have their voice-even when it doesn't agree with your own. I've spent the last two years (since the day my own son was born) listening to my mother say she can't stand up to her father or to my father and she has terrible issues because of it. She allowed me to speak my mind (although it sometimes got me a slap or a grounding) and stand up for myself. I am strong willed yet can accept when I am not in the right. I've learned to think for myself and not allow myself to be bullied into things I don't want to be part of. I want my son to have that strength too.

My son turned 2 yesterday. He's as stubborn as his mama, and even on the toughest days when the sky just isn't blue no matter how many times I insist, I smile inside knowing he'll be okay.

Ally

There were a lot of unhappy things about my childhood. I think simply spending time with your child and being happy to do it goes a long, long way towards giving them a happy childhood. At least, that's what I feel the lack of the most.

I find myself getting anxious sometimes about not making our son's childhood happy enough, and so I'd also say, it's ok to be a person - to get mad, to get frustrated, to want to scream. I think showing your children that it's ok to have negative feelings as well as positive ones, and how to resolve them successfully, contributes to their well-being down the road.

Good topic!

Charisse

Yes to much of the above, but also:

accept their sadness, listen to them. Accept their desire to grow up and their frustration with childhood. Don't try to impress on them that this is the golden time and things are going to get worse...and hopefully don't think of it that way yourself! Most of all, treat them as people entitled to their likes and dislikes, to being happy in different ways than you are, and to a desire to get the hell out of this stage that you (in retrospect) think is so precious.

lisa

I always get a little worried when people say they just want their kids to be happy, because so often is transtlates into giving their kids whatever they want at any given moment, and making sure they are never, ever sad. Thankfully, that doesn't seem to be the case here.

I had a happy childhood, and my parents were pretty strict and overprotective. I was often frustrated at their rules, but I still had tons of fun. My parents' love was obvious, and they were always available to me. I could talk to them about anything. On the other hand, they let me be a kid and spend long hours just hanging out in the back yard or my room, daydreaming and playing. I was an only child in a neighborhood with few kids, but I rarely felt lonely. My house was always a warm and loving place to be.

But more important than all of that, my parents raised me in such a way that I became a happy adult. I was able to leave the nest and thrive on my own, and I am still extremely close to my parents. Many of my friends who had more leinient parents spent their entire 20s trying to get their act together and cope with the real world. I never had that problem, I felt ready for anything.

Lila

I had an unhappy childhood and I remember it very very well. I remember going to my friends' houses to sniff some family happiness and I decided already as a girl that I wanted to give my children the ingredients of a happy home that I identified in these families.

For me, that means: having a happy marriage. There is something really heart-filling for the children when they watch their parents loving each other deeply, committedly, honestly. This may sound discriminatory for single parents but I don't mean it that way. I simply had parents who made each other's lives hell and it was my life dream to have a happy marriage. I am grateful that I have one. And I see how my four children (between the ages of 16 and 7) love it. Just feeling protected by our love and stability.

Another thing is simple family fun. Playing games, laughing, listening. Less TV, more song singing, card games, silly games, outside fun, little trips. BBQ in the garden, watching a hedgehog or a squirrel, cutting out Xmas decorations, whatever.

Another thing is family routines and rituals. Birthdays, holidays, special days. Getting up and going to bed - every day the same routine. Children love routines. I'm more the chaotic-creative type but I see how my children love routines. So I won't change them. They make the children happy.

Little tokens of love and feeling togetherness. Taking pride in their achievements. Taking their feelings seriously. I'm a quite permissive parent with a few very red lines - and I was always flexible when my children came up with an alternative idea. If they say respectfully and nicely what they want I will not insist on what I planned - and I never regretted it. They know that their opinions are important to me, and that they can convince me. And thus, they respect usually when I say "this is NO". But I think this mutual respect is a source of happiness.

Privacy is another thing that a bit older children crave. Let them have their secret boxes with secret collections, a curtain in front of their beds where they crawl in with a torch, trust them. Don't read their diaries or mail. If they tell you a secret, keep it.

Another thing that makes children happy is having a welcoming home for their friends. There are houses where children like to go and others where they don't like to go. It's something in the atmosphere of the home. If your house is welcoming to other children, this is an indicator of the happiness within, I think.

I also find that my children have significant bonds to quite a number of people around them: loving grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts and uncles, friends and neighbors, kindergarten teachers and teachers etc. Sometimes parents keep children too close to themselves. The reason may be selfishness. I see my children happily go to visit grandmother and happily come back. I keep very good contact with all these people. Children shouldn''t be in a conflict of loyalty within the family or friends circle. I was, and it made me terribly unhappy.

What else? Intellectual stimulation. challenge children. Tell them about the world. good books, museums, theater, good music. Don't be afraid to expose them to what you yourself love. Even young children can understand it. It shows appreciation, respect, willingness to share your world with them.

At the same time: separation of spheres. Adults have their own lives. Our living room is no toy magazine (although toys may be played with, they have to go back in the evening to the children's sphere). There are things we decide. (In our case: no junk food, no junk toys, no junk TV, no violence, no disrespect, open communication).

Deal with conflicts with fairness. Sibling jealousy is bitter and frustrating, sibling conflict is horrible. Be a good listener, a fair umpire if they need one, introduce sibling conflict rules: taking turns in talking, listening, solving conflicts. Read books about it if you don't know such techniques. It makes a child terribly unhappy to feel "the lesser loved one".

Never imitate a child. Never laugh about a child's words. Never gossip about others when children are listening. Oh yes, never is a big word. Try to live up to the never and if it reduces these sins, all the better.

Love your child, love yourself, love your partner, love your surroundings. The happier you are with your life, the happier your child will be.

My words come from my conscious decisions and the way they have worked out in my life. They only mean that I love my life. If your life is very different and you love it, then your child will be happy.

Sorry if this was too long, but I've spent the last 17 years trying to make my children, husband, cats and also myself happy... so this question touched a real nerve!

Sara

I was a happy child, though I'm not a terrifically happy adult. For me, the key component of my happiness was that I ALWAYS knew my parents loved me and respected me. They thought i was smart and funny and interesting, and I knew it. I don't think I was spoilt, and I hope to make my children feel the same way. However, I also think other important, non-family/home-based parts of the kid's life (which you mentioned) are actually things you can at least somewhat affect, and you should try. I had a really tough time socially in middle school, and my (loving, but not sensitive or observant) parents never really understood how bad it was or tried to help me cope. I think that experience made a huge and negative difference in my life. So the choices you make about other parts of your kid's life (where are we going to live, what is the school like, etc.), and the support you provide for them in hard times, may be a major part of your parenting, and contribute substantially to your child's happiness. Also, I think it's important to remember that happiness looks really different to different people, even within a family. But hey, I really have no idea - my kid's only 2, and I suspect that my shrieking "this is making me crazy!" at her in the bathtub this evening may disqualify me from giving any kind of parenting advice. Good luck! Your son is lucky to have a parent who values his happiness so much!

Num Num

From the Grammy Gallery: I'm not sure of the truth of the premise: that a happy childhood empowers you as an adult. Respect from and for others, enjoyment of work, a fitting place among your family and peers, a comfortable life are most of the ingredients for happy adults. If you've had a happy childhood, most likely you know how to love and this can ease your way into the adult world.

A happy childhood should be valued for itself. Childhood is a time of limited obligations and, with good parents and teachers, a time to explore the world with passion and joy. It should be happy. Everything said in all the comments makes for happy childhoods. It makes me happy for your kids.

But don't kid yourselves, happiness isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Kate

Lila, that was an amazing post, and I agree with everything you said.

Particularly the part about having family rituals. One of the best parts about my childhood was being read to every day, and always before bed, another chapter.

Being raised in a house full of books and by parents who valued reading contributed greatly to my happy childhood. And gave me a way to escape when it all went to hell.

hedra

Lila, brava! Excellent post. (And hey, someone else who takes up a few paragraphs, so I don't feel alone!) ;)

Mum Mum has a point as well. Much of what we give is for the NOW, and cannot be relied on to translate directly to the LATER. It can be hard to separate the two. Then again, the child and adult experiences are woven pretty tightly together. My adult happiness comes from some of my less-than-happy struggles, in large part, but my childhood joys also held me up during many of those challenging times. The childhood happinesses are a big part of my supports for the challenging-learning-experiences, rather than a path to happiness as an adult per-se, at least for me.

Though sometimes they're just a nice memory, and that's all they have to be.

Kel

This is such a great thread and I agree with what so many have said.

I do two things for myself and hope that by example and by communication to teach my children (4 and 15 months):

1. Its takes a much energy to have a good life as a sad one - much of happiness is perspective and the choice to see happiness.

2. That my children are bundles of pure energy. I can be exhausted by that energy or recharged by that energy. At the end of a long X (day, week, etc.) I can have the onslaught of my children (their needs, their wants, their desires) empty me of all my reserves. OR I can consciously (and its very conscious) suck up their excitment about their lives (their needs, wants, or desires) and recharge myself with them.

I can't remember how many times I just didn't want to read "Little Quack" (okay maybe not "Little Quack", but some other book) or whatever, but by the end of our reading session, when I fully engaged myself into the process, I've always, always, always come away energized and feeling loved and loving.


Kel

dan

If your marriage such that you fight all the time, DO NOT stay together because of the kids. It is much worse to have two parents that fight all the time then to have two separate parents, from my experience anyhow.

famjaztique

A sense of humor, about everything, will teach your children resilience, and this is the best gift you can give them toward a happier childhood.

Uly

My parents didn't work on making us happy. It wasn't a priority for them in any way. Their view was that they weren't in the business of making happy children, they were in the business of making competent adults. If we happened to be happy during the process, so much the better, but that wasn't what was important.

And you know what? My sister and I were happy regardless. When I wasn't, it certainly wasn't for anything my family had done - I was miserable at school much of the time, for example, but it didn't matter much because I had my family. Or three out of the four members of my family suffer from seasonal depression (me, my sister, my dad), but my sister and I are able to pull together, function, and even be incidentally happy in the meantime, and even identify the real source of our unhappiness (genetic factors and the lack of light, not anything in the world around us in this case).

Stu mark

I've posted this on several sites, so forgive me if you're read it before:

The Kid Isn't The Problem, The Problem Is The Problem

How often do you have a problem with your kid? He won’t eat vegetables. She won’t do her homework. He won’t brush his teeth. She won’t clean up her room. These problems happen often, and they can be all-consuming. For me, something that really works, 100% of the time, is to separate the kid from The Problem, and then to team up with the kid to defeat The Problem.

To illustrate, when I want one of my kids to do something that they refuse to do, I see that I have a choice. I could visualize my child standing on the other side of a line, next to The Problem, with me yelling across the line, "Hey, The Problem is yours! You better solve The Problem.” This approach hardly ever works, as my kid feels isolated and unloved.

Instead, I see myself standing next to my child, with The Problem alone on the other side of the line. I then see myself putting an arm around my child, saying "Hey, you and me, we're gonna defeat The Problem together." I find that this attitude seems to make my kids feel better about themselves. They feel accompanied during these moments. They feel respected. They feel uniquely empowered. Best of all, they feel loved. This technique minimizes or eliminates shame. It keeps my kid engaged in finding a solution (instead of looking at me, going “You fix it!”) It also earns me respect points for those times when I’m the one with The Problem. Now when I’m sick or just want help finding my glasses, the kids are way more willing to lend a hand. Now we’re a team, working together to slay the beastly Problems.

Chris Troise

I like to keep my strategy towards this very simple. I try to be like a grandparent, and a dog, to my own kids.

Who ever gets mad at a grandparent? Nobody, because it is so clear that a grandparent loves you and is besotted with you, that when they "lay down the law" you follow it without a fight. You do not want to risk all the love you get otherwise over something so trivial as "put your dishes away".

So love your kids mightily every chance you get so that when you have to get "heavy" with them it doesn't get too heavy.

And whoever gets mad at a dog? A dog is *always* happy to see you when you come home. Every day I start clean with my kids. No matter what happened yesterday, come this morning its a clean slate. "Hey, who's this one? It's POOKIE!!!!" "Who's that? Huh? IT'S MUSHY!!!! HEY!!!!"

So far I think these two angles provide all the love, and all the structure, my kids need.

Of course I can be wrong, but I don't think these two role models can be all bad for a parent to emulate.

Jennifer Barnes

I am so *happy* that people have commented about happiness not neccesarily being that all-important thing to strive for. I've been thinking about this post ever since I read it last week and I have got to say that I do not want my sons to have a happy childhood as much as I want them to have a loved childhood... to know that they are deeply and unconditionally loved by their father and me.

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