Happiness is a warm puppy. If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. Don't worry, be happy! Rules for how to live happily are nothing new. But lately, our well-being -- and that of our kids -- seems to be in free fall. Depression, anxiety, and even youth suicide rates are increasing, as is cell phone and device use and the constant expectation to be "on." Raising kids to be happy in today's world isn't impossible: Many generations of parents have managed to do so when the threats were way worse than FOMO. We just need to rewrite the rules for the digital age.
The quest to make sure our kids are happy may have led us in the wrong direction. While media and tech deserve some of the blame for our collective stress, no one really knows how much. However, we do know that turning everything off doesn't magically make us happier. In fact, studies show that some types of screen-based activities can be beneficial -- and we all know the warm, fuzzy feeling we get when we enjoy media together. As more research emerges on the impact of media and tech on kids' mental health, it confirms what we've always known about how to be happy: Supportive relationships, a feeling of self-worth, strong character, and other positive influences are what really matter. And while you can’t mandate joy, supporting your kid -- both online and off -- creates an environment where happiness is there for the taking. These tips can help you raise a happy kid in the digital age:
Grit -- the combination of perseverance and resilience that helps you bounce back from disappointments -- plays an important role in well-being. At school, online, and even with friends, kids feel pressured to achieve something on the first try. Instead, instill what’s called a "growth mindset," the process of trying, failing, and learning from mistakes. When they feel defeated, their inner voice will say, "You got this!"
Nourish their sense of self-worth.
Likes, comments, and other indicators of online status are part of kids' social-media lives. But there's a tipping point when a kid’s perfectly natural curiosity about what others think about them turns into a harmful fixation on peer validation that can cause depression. You can help inoculate your kid against this by fostering an internal sense of self-worth. Encourage activities and hobbies that give kids a sense of accomplishment on their own terms.
Being aware and thankful is a tried-and-true life hack that leads to a stronger sense of well-being. You can actually use media and tech to cultivate a sense of gratitude. Check out sites and apps that let kids help make the world a better place. Watch TV shows and movies that inspire gratitude. At home, create a culture of appreciation by discussing what you're grateful for. Check out Greater Good Magazine's Gratitude page for more ideas.
Seriously, that's all you need to do. Nature is scientifically proven to boost well-being. If you need inspiration, watch nature movies or download apps that encourage outdoor exploration. Or just put down your phone, close the laptop, turn off the TV, and go for a walk.
In the digital age, kids can make new friends and strengthen existing relationships online, whether it's in a rousing game of Fortnite, a few hearts on Instagram, or even a FaceTime session with the grandparents. But the happiest people are the ones who consistently find a balance between screens and the rest of life. And as the grown-ups, we're the ones who need to model healthy habits. So, carve out screen-free times at home. Unplug everything so you can make eye contact and really listen to family and friends without distractions. By all means, enjoy media together -- but set limits so it doesn't interfere with face-to-face interactions.
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What do you really want for your children? What do you dream about for their future? It’s probably not fame or even fortune. Instead, parents simply want their children to be happy. “I think that, deep in their hearts, every parent would agree,” says Susan Engel, the founder and director of the Williams Program in Teaching at Williams College in Massachusetts.
By happy, Engel doesn’t mean having a party every day. When we’re happy, we are finding both meaning and joy in life. Kids need to learn how to achieve that happy state, but we can give them the tools they need to do it. Engel used her experience as a developmental psychologist to figure out what those tools are—and how schools could be teaching them.
The 7 Dispositions: Making School, and Life, Meaningful
The seven skills, or as Engel calls them, “dispositions,” outline the key things everyone needs to have a shot at a happy life. Her goal was to think big, but also be reasonable. “Happiness is very temperamentally based. School isn’t going to change that. It won’t make a shy kid un-shy, either. So I focused on what school could really play a role in,” Engel says. “School can equip children with skills and attitudes that they can carry forward.”
- Reading. “The ability to read in a test is one thing, but what we want to know is not only can they read, but do they?” Engel says. “Do they use written materials to think about things, make decisions, enjoy themselves, inform themselves?” At school and at home, kids should have ample opportunity to read, and to read what they want to read—without writing it all down in a reading log.
- Inquiry. “There is plenty of evidence that inquiry helps you do well in a job, but it also makes you happy. People who go on learning get more pleasure out of life,” Engel says. So learning is more meaningful for kids if it’s organized around what they want to know. Instead of the specific topic, what’s most important is asking questions.
- Flexible thinking. What’s more meaningful in the long run: knowing a set of facts, or being able to think about something in many different ways? Adults need to be able to see a situation or tackle a problem from multiple perspectives. So we need to help kids develop that skill.
- Conversation. “We know the amount of conversation kids have drops when they get to school,” Engel says. “There’s one teacher and twenty-three kids.” But there are consequences to this. Kids with educated, middle-class parents are exposed to a lot more meaningful discussion. Schools can help close that gap so kids learn valuable conversational skills like not interrupting, adding information, and building on your partner’s ideas. We should allow and encourage kids to talk among themselves, and teach teachers how to facilitate enriching conversations.
- Collaboration. It’s a big buzzword in the work world, but kids are rarely helped to collaborate in a way that’s meaningful, says Engel. Instead, they are told not to “cheat” or help each other, except on the occasional group project. She wants to see collaborative work be the focus, not the exception. It should extend to social interactions, too: Teachers can help kids navigate relationships with their classmates—including making sure that some kids don’t exclude others. We need to find ways to make kindness and teamwork a habit.
- Engagement. Being really absorbed in what they are learning will help kids lead a “meaningful, purposeful, connected life,” Engel says. They need opportunities to immerse themselves in a project or area of study, whether that means reading a book they like or pursuing the answer to a question they’re curious about. Being deeply immersed and focused on a particular task or activity is motivating.
- Well-being. Like adults, kids need a sense of purpose. But “we don’t allow children to develop that in school,” Engel says. “We should be nurturing them and asking: What do you want to do that’s meaningful and useful to others? When we saved kids from industrialization, we somehow got the idea that kids should never do anything that feels useful.” But children need to feel that what they do matters, and that they are part of the community. Instead of writing letters just for the teacher’s eyes, for example, they could be sending them out into the community to ask a question or pursue a policy change. Or they could create memory books for the elderly.
The good news: Much of this is already happening in schools. “But it tends to be around the edges instead of being the core,” Engel says. “I’m not saying we should throw out everything great teachers do!” Instead, we can build on what’s already there by shifting importance to these seven areas. It would mean a lot to our kids, both now and in the future.
To read more about Susan Engel’s seven dispositions, see her book The End of the Rainbow: How Educating for Happiness—Not Money—Would Transform Our Schools.
Catherine Holecko is a parenting writer and mother of two school-aged children.