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12 Surprising Ways to Raise a Happy Child

The capacity for happiness is one of the greatest gifts a child can receive from a parent. Here's how to give your kids self-esteem -- and lasting contentment.
One of the greatest gifts a parent can give a child is the capacity for happiness. There's a big difference, of course, between instant gratification -- getting the latest Powerpuff Girls watch, say, or a wardrobe full of Nike sweats -- and lasting contentment. Sure, kids love treats, and like grown-ups, need small pleasures to boost their feeling of well-being. But genuine happiness goes deeper: It nurtures your child's spirit, imbuing her with a sense that all's well with the world.
Experts agree that happy children share certain characteristics, including self-esteem, optimism, and a sense of control. As it happens, these traits are easier to develop than you may think. Here, 12 ways to help your child walk on the sunny side of the street.

1. Have old-fashioned, unstructured fun
Successful kids are frequently happy kids, but in your efforts to prepare your child for life's challenges, resist the temptation to cram her schedule with too many activities. All kids need a chance to decompress, take a break from playdates and lessons, and simply play freely, letting their imagination guide them. Unhurried time to catch lightning bugs, make snow angels, or watch a spider spin its web enhances your child's sense of wonder and lets him explore the world at his own pace.
Why not slow down your own frenetic schedule, too, and join your child in the pursuit of fun? For inspiration, check out 51 Best Ways to Amuse Kids, by Ellen van Wees (Perigee Books, 2000). You'll find everything from bathtub adventures to doll birthday parties.

2. Teach her to care
In order to be happy, a child needs to feel that she is a valuable member of a larger community and can touch people's lives in a meaningful way. Help instill this feeling by giving her plenty of opportunities to reach out to others. Collect some old toys that she no longer wants, and give them to a shelter for homeless families. At the supermarket, ask her to select a few extra grocery items that you can donate to a local food bank.
"Children can learn the joy of helping others at a very young age," says Deborah Spaide, founder of Kids Care and Family Cares, two volunteer organizations under the auspices of the Points of Light Foundation, a Washington, D.C., organization that promotes volunteerism. Kids Care clubs are sponsored by schools, churches, and synagogues for elementary- and middle-school children, while Family Cares provides at-home and community-based projects for parents with younger kids. "One Family Cares project might be to make Huggy Bears from scraps of clothing for babies and toddlers in a hospital in Tanzania," Spaide explains. "Even a 2-year-old can help stuff the bear and point out where the eyes and mouth go." For more information, log on to
Points of Light

3. Get physical
Go sledding with your kids, or play tag in the park. Take bike rides together. You'll not only increase your child's strength and stamina but give him reasons to smile. Keeping active helps ease stress and lets kids blow off steam in a healthy way. Fit kids also have a more positive body image; they take pride in what they can do rather than obsess about what they look like. And if you encourage your child in an activity he likes, you'll have given him one more way to have fun.

4. Laugh it up
Tell jokes, sing silly songs, poke fun at yourself. Laughter is good for your child -- and for you. One reason is purely physical: When you laugh, you release tension and take in more oxygen, which sends spirits soaring.

5. Be creative with praise
Don't just say, "Good job" whenever your child makes progress toward a goal or masters a skill. Be specific; point out the details that you find impressive. Saying, "The way you described the hero in your book report made him come alive for me" or "I like the way you've drawn those trees" is far more meaningful than a rote pat on the back.
Similarly, don't overdo the reward system. "I used to hand out prizes every Friday," says Laurie Rausch Andrews, who teaches fourth grade in West Hartford, Connecticut. "But it got to the point where the kids were more focused on the reward than on doing well." Instead, let your child discover the satisfaction inherent in accomplishing something.

6. Make sure she eats right
If your child is cranky or fussy (but clearly not sick), she may be hungry. If it's not yet mealtime, fix her a snack. But find something nutritious: Eating well minimizes mood swings and contributes to a general sense of well-being. Good snack choices include low-fat yogurt, fresh or dried fruit, and that old standby, peanut butter and jelly on whole-wheat bread.

7. Bring out the artist in him
You've doubtless heard the theory that listening to classical music boosts your child's brain power. But exposure to music, dance, or any of the arts also enriches a child's inner life and sense of self-worth. "Moving to music or playing with paints gives your child an emotional outlet, a creative way to express his feelings about himself and his world," says Eugene Golden, manager of the Music Guild, a nonprofit organization that presents chamber-music concerts at inner-city schools in Los Angeles. "The feeling of accomplishment that comes from creating art, whether it's learning to play the piano or performing in a school play, helps a child feel good about himself."

8. Smile
Flashing a big grin to your child reassures him as nothing else can. It's a shorthand way of saying, "I love you." While you're at it, throw in a hug. The late teacher and writer Virginia Satir used to say a person needs 4 hugs a day for survival, 8 for maintenance, and 16 for growth. And remember, all that smiling and hugging is as good for you as it is for your child.

9. Listen up
Nothing makes your child feel as important as having your undivided attention. It tells her that what's on her mind matters to you. Want to be a better listener? Don't lend just half an ear. If your child speaks to you while you're in the middle of paying bills or doing chores, stop and shift your focus to him. Whatever you do, don't interrupt, finish his sentences, or rush him through his thoughts -- even if you've heard it all before. Golden opportunities for undistracted listening: while you're driving with your child or putting her to bed at night.

10. Give up on perfection
We all want our kids to do their best. But whenever we step in to "fix" or "tidy up" an imperfect job, we inadvertently undermine their confidence. "If we redust the spot she missed or rewipe the kitchen counter, we're telling our child that what she did wasn't good enough," says Karin Ireland, a mother and author of Boost Your Child's Self-Esteem: Simple, Effective Ways to Build Children's Self-Respect and Confidence (Berkley Books, 2000). "Unfortunately, kids can begin to believe that they're not good enough."
The next time you're tempted to correct your child's work, ask yourself: 1) Is there a health or safety issue involved? and 2) Will this matter ten years from now? If the answers are no, then let it go. Sure, helping your child acquire life skills is a big part of parenting, Ireland says, but it's only one part. The emotional connection between the two of you is more important than whether she puts the fork in the right place when she sets the table.

11. Teach him to solve problems
From tying his shoelaces to crossing the street safely, each skill your child masters is another step toward independence. Indeed, just knowing that problems can be tackled (and solved) helps your child feel good about herself. When she hits a snag -- whether it's teasing from a playmate or a puzzle that she can't put together -- you can help her by following these steps: 1) Identify the problem; 2) have her describe the solution she wants; 3) figure out what steps will lead to that solution; 4) decide whether she can take the steps on her own or needs help; 5) if she does need help, make sure she gets it.

12. Give him a chance to shine
Every child has a special talent or skill; why not let him show it off a bit? Does he love books? Have him read to you while you cook. Is she good with numbers? Let her scope out the best buys when you go shopping. "When you share your child's enthusiasm and show that you're impressed with his gifts," Karin Ireland says, "you turn up his self-esteem another notch."

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