My precious firstborn, when he was around 2 years old and had very few multi-word phrases under his belt, blurted something out in the back of the car one day that shocked me. “Be happy, Ima!” In his limited lexicon, he had put all his words and thoughts together to convey that message to me. And believe me, he has continued to convey it many times since then when he has sensed me being unhappy.
On that fateful first time in the car, I was going through one of life’s little rough patches, but was confident that I hadn’t let him see it. Or had I? Let me tell you, what children pick up on is not to be underestimated. They understand much more than the language of tantrums that they often use to convey their own hard feelings. Longer silences, reduced smiling, general sullenness- children know when adults are not happy, even bright-blue-eyed wispy haired toddlers, ordering you from their car-seat to do a 180 on your emotions.
From this moment forward I became convinced that one of the most powerful tools to teach children happiness is to show them how you find happiness yourself. A household as a whole is only as strong as its individual parts and good modeling is one of the most powerful tools in parenting. This is no exception when it comes to happiness. In other words, if you want your children to be happy, you better work on being genuinely happy yourself. Your behavior, language, reactions, mood, responses, resilience, positivity, and reinforcement all influence how your child will perceive and react to both challenges and successes. Are we destroyed when someone hurts our feelings or do we shake it off? Do we grumble to ourselves and grouch at the people around us when something doesn’t go the way we wanted, or do we compartmentalize it in a way that doesn’t affect the people around us?
With adult trails and tribulations, modeling can often mean showing children how to be happy despite (“This particular thing bothered me, but I am not going to let it ruin my day, week, month, year, etc.”). Life is rife with challenges, and better that we talk to our children about them and give them a window into seeing how we deal with them, instead of pretending everything is perfect until they are blindsided by the reality that it’s not. Even with my seven year old and five year old I will say, “Wow, that conversation I just had with someone really bothered me, but I’m not going to let it ruin my day,” or “When you just had that tantrum it really made me feel upset, but I’m going to work on myself to move past those feelings now that it’s over.”
I recently heard about the emerging concept that however young children see their parents react to situations will be their default settings of how they initially react to similar situations when they are adults. Even if they develop stronger resiliency than their parents and refine themselves to act upon things differently, their initial gut reaction will be what they saw from childhood. For example, if you as a parent get annoyed every time it rains (“oh man, now we can’t go have our afternoon outside I’m so upset, now there is going to be more traffic what a pain, now this is going to ruin my suit, etc.) they will innately feel annoyance whenever they see it raining in the future. I can’t tell you this is categorically true for every situation, but I know that I see it in my own life with innate reactions I learned from viewing my parents’ reactions in childhood.
What I am trying to hone in on here is the general environment of the household can either make or break a child’s understanding of happiness. The main reason for this is that in childhood, happiness is often inextricably linked to family happiness. And yet, while the environment is key, this is not to say that you have to run a circus where everyone is happy-clappy all day long. It’s more about equilibrium than anything else. Negativity has to happen sometimes; reprimands are needed to teach, and there are inevitable punishments that have to be doled out to instruct. Rebbetzin Sima Spetner who is a parenting guru in Israel teaches parents about a “wonderful ratio” that keeps children feeling happy in a household. What she has developed through her research is that overall over the course of a day or a week, there should be 80% positive interactions for every 20% of necessary negative interactions. Or in other words, for every negative interaction, there has to be 4 positive interactions to balance out the negative feelings and keep children feeling comfortable and happy. This is a helpful tool\metric to generally take stock and analyze whether things in your household are out of whack. And if they are, if you notice that you are giving your children too many commands, too many reprimands and punishments, if there are too many fights erupting, you can either try to reduce these negative interactions or just increase the number of positive ones (more hugs, more one-on-one time, more pointing out your children’s successes to them, etc.) to bring things back to more comfortable and happy ground.
Unhappy households aren’t only stressful in their own right for the negative feelings they evoke, but research shows that they also make it hard for children to succeed academically. Paul Tough in his book, How Children Succeed, says that poor performance in school can sometimes be traced back to unhappy home lives. Tough explains this as, “The part of the brain most affected by early stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is critical in self-regulatory activities of all kinds, both emotional and cognitive. As a result, children who grow up in stressful environments generally find it harder to concentrate, harder to sit still, harder to rebound from disappointments and harder to follow directions. And that has a direct effect on their performance in school. When you’re overwhelmed by uncontrollable impulses and distracted by negative feelings, it’s hard to learn the alphabet.”
No person is always happy, and no family is always happy either. However, we certainly can strive for happy enough. With the ‘wonderful ratio’ as a tool for general reflection and with the knowledge that children are watching us for cues and guidance (taking it all in like funnels without filters) we can be more mindful of our own behaviors and reactions and push ourselves just a little harder to show happiness. Even during those times when we feel unhappy, don’t forget that you can always fake it until you make it. After all, research shows that people who smile (even fake smiles) feel happier afterward. Personally, I’m sure I flashed a fake one that day at my precious little prince dolling out happiness advice from in between swigs of his sippy cup…
*Originally published in Times of Israel
Beth Perkel is a freelance writer that has been published in a whole host of publications ranging from Newsweek magazine and Chicken Soup for the Soul to The Jewish Press and Aish.com. She is a mother, speaker, mediator, teacher, rebbetzin and writer in Chicago, IL.