When you think about providing the best for your kids, what comes to mind? Food, probably—organic, healthy, whole food. Education too: You most likely thought a lot about the schools when you decided where to raise your family. But what about happiness? With so much to think about every single day in a life with kids, figuring out how to provide positive family values along with a sugar-free snack is easier said than done. Until now: These simple, ordinary changes to the way you think and talk to your kids will improve your outlook on life—and benefit your children for years to come.
Ever do this? Grumble about people who are annoying (or worse)
Make this shift: Find something nice to say
How easy it is to call the person who cut you off in traffic a jerk (or something unprintable!), or to stand by as your kid badmouths a bully behind his back (after all, he deserves it!). But treating others with compassion is the first step toward loving yourself—and isn’t that what you’re really trying to teach your child?
Putting yourself in the other person’s proverbial shoes—and teaching your kid to do the same—will help you both shift from thoughtless put-downs to thoughtful compassion. For example, you can tell your child (and yourself) that maybe that driver was on his way to the doctor’s office with a sick child, and maybe the bully doesn’t have any really good friends. These little backstories you create may or may not be true, but does it matter? You’ve suddenly become caring, not grumpy. The point is to remind yourself—and your child—that most people are doing the best they can.
This kind of reaction to other people will also help your child understand how others view her own less-than-compassionate actions. Christine Agro of Brooklyn, New York, says that her 5-year-old son, Caiden, joined a friend in taunting a little girl, who cried and ran to her mom. Agro told Caiden that since he and the little girl had never met before, all she’d ever know of him was something mean. “I asked him if this was how he wanted to be known, and he said no,” Agro says. With his mom’s encouragement, Caiden came up with the idea to apologize to the little girl.
No matter what frustrating situation your child is dealing with, help him find something positive to say about it. In some cases, that might mean acting more kindly, like Caiden did. In others—say, when your child gets annoyed with a playmate’s block building capabilities—you might simply point out that everyone has her own background and strengths. “I say to my daughter that if I do something better than you, it’s because I have more years of practice; if you’re especially good at something without trying so hard, it’s just the way you’re made; if someone who tries hard at a task is not as good, it’s just the way they’re made,” says Melinda Mallari of Hinckley, Ohio, mom of a 9-year-old. “There’s no shame in being who and how you are.”
Ever do this? Worry. (C’mon, who doesn’t?)
Make this shift: Get a reality check
Worrying goes with parenting like diapers go with babies. Is Michael getting enough vegetables? Does Lily have enough toys? Too many toys? The right toys? But when worry becomes overwhelming or becomes a habit, it’s not helping.
“Children can pick up their parents’ anxiety and worry because they’re sensitive and open—they’re like emotional sponges,” says Judith Orloff, MD, author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life. The antidote is to use reality checks to help your child—and yourself—understand that many worries are groundless. “Worry is in the mind,” Orloff says. “You have to tune in to see what the truth really is.”
Here’s an exercise that works for adults and kids, says Tamar Chansky, PhD, director of the Children’s Center for OCD and Anxiety and author of Freeing Your Child from Negative Thinking: Draw a line down the middle of a piece of paper. On the left side, write down what, according to the worry, is the worst that can happen. For example, your child may think that if he does badly on a test, he’ll have to stay back a grade and his friends will make fun of him. Then, on the right side, write down what’s most likely to happen if the worry turns out to be founded. In the case of the failed test, your child will probably just have to get study help to do better on the next one.
For a littler kid, Chansky suggests helping your child come up with something to call his worries, like “worry bug” or “scaredy cat.” Then give your child’s logical thinking a name like “smart brain,” and help him role play: What does the worry bug say about singing in the holiday show? What does the smart brain say instead? Chances are, the smart brain knows that the worries are overblown.
Finally, if what you or your child have been worrying about doesn’t happen at all, “be sure to acknowledge this and celebrate it,” says Thom Rutledge, a psychotherapist and author of Embracing Fear: How to Turn What Scares Us into Our Greatest Gift. “This can become a reminder that the next time you’re worried, you may be worried for nothing.”
Ever do this? Complain about something that went wrong
Make this switch: Say thanks for something else
Complaining is so second nature that many times we do it without even thinking—and our kids pick up on it and start in with gripes of their own. But you’re probably trying to raise kids who are grateful for all the good in their lives. How do you make that a reality?
“When our kids complain, they need to tell us two things that they are thankful to God for,” says Brett Benson of Northfield, Minnesota, a dad of three kids between the ages of 4 and 10. “We have them write them down, too, which makes them think through it and not just say the first thing that comes to mind. Replacing complaining with thanksgiving has really seemed to help their attitudes.”
Steven Spenser of Seattle goes one step further by helping his 8-year-old son realize how fortunate he is to be living in a loving family with enough food, clothing, and shelter, unlike kids in many other parts of the world. He shows his son pictures of tough living conditions in geography books and on the Internet, along with age-appropriate documentaries about life in other countries.
Another parent-tested idea: Analyze complaints, which will help you and your kids realize how insignificant they are compared to all the positive things in your lives. If your child complains she had a horrible day, help her put it in perspective by finding out what made it so horrible. “I suggest starting with a few statements like, ‘Remember when you woke up this morning and Dad made pancakes? That was nice. Then we walked to the bus stop together. That was nice,’ ” says Silvana Clark, author of 12 Going on 29: Surviving Your Daughter’s Tween Years. “Go through a few more events of the day until your child reveals she spilled her lunch tray in the cafeteria and everyone laughed. Basically, she had a ‘bad’ five minutes. My daughter got to the point where she would say, ‘Mom, do you want to hear about my bad three-and-a-half minutes?’ ” And parents, you can do the same: Don’t let a computer failure at work turn an otherwise good day into a ruined one.
Ever do this? Blame somebody
Make this shift: Take responsibility
People who blame others and outside circumstances tend to also think that others are responsible for their happiness, says Jay Winner, MD, in his book Take the Stress Out of Your Life. Yikes! If you can help your kid ditch the victim mentality (and do it yourself, too), there’ll be so much less anger at bad news—and so much more happiness at success.
When Gina Miller’s 7-year-old daughter slips little gems into the conversation like “He made me do this” or “You make me feel that,” Miller reinforces these three ideas: You are in control of your feelings, thoughts, and actions; you are not in control of other people’s feelings, thoughts, or actions; and everything you do and say and feel is a choice you make.
A responsible attitude can help your child even in situations where someone else is clearly at fault, because she’s in charge of how she reacts to bad circumstances. Let her know that the person who hurt her has likely stopped thinking about it, while she’s hurting herself over and over by ruminating on what someone else did to her, suggests Laurie Gray, mom of an 8-year-old daughter in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
This insight is key to raising kids who have a positive—but realistic—outlook on life. And that’s what leads to true family happiness: Knowing that whatever comes your way, you’ll be able to handle it together.