The common wish of all parents is to raise happy children. However, this seemingly positive, and even altruistic, wish can be a rather loaded proposition. In trying to ensure their child’s happiness, some parents may believe that they must step in and fix every situation that prevents their child’s happiness. Although parents’ intentions are good in these situations, responding this way may alleviate a child’s pain in the moment but doesn’t address the larger issue – helping a child navigate uncomfortable emotions.
When parents are focused on the immediate end-result, such as taking away a child’s emotional pain so that he feels happy, they lose the opportunity to help him learn how to feel better. When things don’t go his way, acknowledging and accepting his feelings is key. For example, when a child is upset about something, such as not being able to zip up his jacket and starts to cry in frustration, a parent may offer him some candy to stop the crying.
Although there is nothing wrong with giving a treat to your child, “fixing” the situation — i.e., stopping your child from feeling sad — sends a message that lacks acknowledgement and acceptance of the child’s sad feelings. Your child may feel soothed from challenging feelings in the short-term, but will not gain your support as they learn to navigate setbacks while tolerating their unhappy feelings, which promotes self-regulation, healthy emotional expression, and problem-solving in the long-run.
A more effective way to nurture children's happiness is to foster a positive parent-child relationship, which is the foundation of their happiness. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain in their book, Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, “By using the Smart Love guidelines, you can provide your child with a reliable, enduring core happiness that is unwavering even in the face of life’s unavoidable disappointments and misfortunes.”
What does this look like? How do parents nurture a loving, positive relationship with their child that will help them to feel happy in their own lives and in their own way? The following are some things you can do to foster this type of relationship with your child at all stages of their development.
Welcome, listen to, acknowledge, and accept all your child’s feelings by showing them that you love them even when they are angry, unhappy, or struggling.
When parents get angry at children for behaving like children, children copy this anger towards themselves, making them feel that they are bad, or their feelings are bad. This creates conditional self-worth, which involves feeling good about yourself only when you are behaving well or pleasing to others. As Dr. Martha Heineman Pieper explains, "feelings are morally neutral," and having unhappy feelings is not a weakness.
Use Smart Love’s concept of loving regulation, which focuses on regulating children’s behavior (for example, they need to go to bed, or turn off their video game), while maintaining your loving parent-child relationship and without resorting to timeouts or consequences. Loving regulation will also help you avoid power struggles and conflicts when health or safety are not at risk.
Set aside focused, individual time to connect with your child each day. Simply spending positive time together, doing things your child likes to do, will help you to know your child better and increase their self-esteem. Show kindness and offer your unconditional love, which is the foundation of children’s self-worth and self-esteem. Doing so helps them feel valued even when they are struggling.
Finally, remember that happiness is transient for all people and can feel and mean different things to different people, including our children. What makes a parent happy may differ from what makes their child happy.
A positive parent-child relationship is one of trust and care that enables parents to accept all aspects of their child and their experiences without judgment. Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper describe the importance of this relationship as follows, “Your child’s inner well-being rests on her certain knowledge that she has caused you to love caring for her. Of all the gifts you can give your child, this is the most important because it is the foundation of all happiness and goodness and the shield against self-caused unhappiness.”
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Family Services, 2010.
Happiness and Success Are the Wrong Goals for Your Kids, Shefali Tsabary, PhD., Oprah Daily website, February 15, 2023. https://www.oprahdaily.com/life/relationships-love/a42761570/happiness-and-success-are-the-wrong-goals-for-kids/