What Does It Mean to Be Happy?

by Adrian Kalikow
M.Ed., PCI Certified Parent Coach®

I wish I had a nickel for every time I have heard a parent say, "I just want my kids to be happy." This seems to be the wish of every 21st century parent, that elusive quality of "happiness."

When I challenge parents, however, to explain just what "happy" means, it is often difficult for them to describe. Does it mean avoiding disappointment? Will their child be happy if all of his or her wishes come true? Does happiness come from never being scolded, always being accepted, no matter how he or she behaves? Will a child be happy if he or she is shielded from struggles, if everything comes easily?

I would like to argue that constant success and acceptance of all behaviors are not likely to lead to a child's true feeling of happiness. Of course, a child should always be praised for hard work and acknowledged for improvements in behavior. First and foremost, a child should feel love from his or her parents, expressed in warm hugs and encouragement, even at the most difficult times. However, there is much benefit to be gained by a child who is allowed to struggle sometimes, knows his or her limits and is expected to stay within them, and who receives honest criticism from those who love him or her the most.

Imagine a group of children and parents on a playground. There is a jungle gym with high bars for climbing and swinging. Some parents direct their children toward the safer equipment, not allowing them to go near the jungle gym, which might threaten their safety. Other parents accompany their children to the jungle gym, carefully spotting them as they climb and swing, allowing them to try new skills, while carefully supervising their safety. Still other parents sit on a bench engrossed in conversation with a friend, while their children climb and swing freely, with no oversight.

Which parent are you? The first parent is certainly keeping his or her child safe from physical harm, but is preventing the child from experiencing the joy and sense of accomplishment of mastering a new skill, and is possibly encouraging the development of the same fears in the child that the parent experiences. The second parent is allowing the child to explore and try new skills, but is there as a safety net if the child experiences any difficulty. The third parent is allowing his or her child full freedom at the playground, with no boundaries concerning where the child can be or what he or she can do.

At different times, with various scenarios, it is probably acceptable to be each of these parents. There are times we help children cautiously enter a new situation, stay by their side, and do all we can to prevent harm. Most times, it is probably best to encourage our child to try new and even scary things, while they know we are there if they need us. Sometimes, it is appropriate, if we are aware of our children's abilities, to allow them freedom to explore on their own, having the confidence that they can be successful without having us by their side. These are the times we leave our child at a birthday party without us, allow our child a first sleep over at a friend's, or encourage our child to ride his or her bike down the block with a buddy.

This same principle holds true when dealing with our children's behavior toward others, whether concerning sharing toys, helping with chores, or speaking to others. At the beginning, our children just do not know how to behave. They are not born with the ability to share, or to set the table, or to say "please" and "thank you." We begin by modeling these behaviors ourselves, and gently encourage our children to do as we do. Gradually, we establish expectations for these behaviors, and whether the expectations are met or not, we hand our children appropriate consequences. We thank them and give them a hug when they have placed all the napkins and spoons nicely on the table. We take a toy away if their time limit has passed for playing with it and it is someone else's turn. We wait for the word "please" before we give our child the item he or she desires. We might place a sticker on a chart each time our child goes to bed without coming out of his or her room, and after 5 stickers, we might go out for ice cream.

So, what does all this have to do with being "happy?" A "happy" child is a child who feels good about him or herself, who is proud to have worked hard to gain a new skill. A "happy" child is one who feels safe because he or she knows what is expected. The rules stay the same from day to day, so he or she knows how to act. A "happy" child is a child who feels loved by his or her peers, because he or she has learned the value of sharing and treating others kindly. A "happy" child has learned the value of a smile, because he or she has experienced many encouraging smiles every day from those who love him or her. A "happy" child has learned that, by struggling, he or she has become someone who can crawl, or walk, or count, or read, or speak clearly and kindly, or sing a song, or hop on one foot, or ride a bike.

A "happy" child is one who feels capable, confident and safe. A "happy" child is respected and appreciated for who he or she is, while also being encouraged to be the best human being he or she can possibly be. A "happy" child feels good in his or own skin, and knows his or her efforts are valued by others.

My wish for all parents is that they have the strength and wisdom they need to raise truly "happy" children, children who will feel safe and strong and confident and able, children who cherish the needs of others as well as their own, children who will each do their part to make our world a better place!

Adrian Kalikow, M.Ed. Early Childhood Education and PCI Parent Coach in training, lives and works in Chappaqua, New York. She can be reached by email at adriank75@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2009 Adrian Kalikow, all rights reserved. Used with permission.