How to Raise Happy Kids

Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and—Finally—Let the Sunshine In, suffered a breakdown at age 36 after dealing with anxiety and depression throughout his life. Patkin suggests eight ways parents can help their children develop good habits to grow up to be a happy adult.

happy kids outside

Show your kids what happiness looks like.

As a parent, you’ve probably noticed that your kids will follow your lead, even when you don’t think they’ve been paying attention. You can tell your kids every day and every night how important it is to cut themselves slack when they’ve made a mistake, for example, but if you beat yourself up for days after messing up at work, your instructions won’t stick.

“Kids do what they see us doing, not what we tell them to do,” confirms author Todd Patkin. “If you live a frenetic, stressful, and unhappy life, chances are good that your kids will grow up to do the same. When it comes to instilling happiness habits, the most important thing you can do is model the behaviors and attitudes you want them to adopt.”

Teach your kids to love themselves.

Despite what you may tell yourself, the love you feel for them—as boundless and unconditional as it might be—won’t be enough to sustain them throughout their lifetimes. It’s crucial that you teach them from a very early age to love themselves, so they’ll develop a deep-seated sense of confidence.

“The confidence that comes from loving yourself helps to guard against everything from feelings of inadequacy to living to please others to bullying, all of which can lead to more serious problems like depression,” Patkin explains. “Admittedly, there is no ‘magic bullet’ for teaching your kids to love themselves—it’s something that will develop over time. Teaching them that they have intrinsic value starts at home with you.”

Help them to let go of the obsession with perfectionism.

It goes without saying that parents don’t set out to harm their children when they push them to succeed—it’s natural to want your child to realize his full potential and take advantage of every opportunity. But the truth is that parents’ high expectations put the most pressure of all on their children, and many kids—especially those whose personalities predispose them to it—get the (incorrect) idea that anything short of perfection is a failure.

“Consider this: When your child comes home with four great grades and one that’s not so good (for example, four As and one B), do you focus on how great the As are?” Patkin asks. “Or is your first response, ‘What happened? Why did you get the B in this course?’ It’s important to realize that by celebrating the As, you’re still letting your child know that top marks are the goal—but you’re doing it in a much healthier way than by immediately showing disappointment over the one grade that was lacking. And if he’s beating himself up over the report card, reassure him that it’s okay as long as he did his best.”

Teach your kids to play to their strengths.

It’s no secret that we are raising our children in a very competitive world. Many kids feel a compulsion to be good at everything. Think about it: If your child excels in one subject, is average at most, and just can’t seem to grasp one more, how is her homework and study time allotted? Chances are, she spends the most time trying to improve in the subject she’s bad at and devotes the least time to the subject that comes naturally to her. Problem is, she’ll probably never ace her weak subject, but think about what a shining star she could be if she dedicated her best efforts toward what she was good at.

“In addition to inadvertently holding themselves back by trying to shore up their weaknesses, kids also make themselves feel inadequate when they fail to live up to their own expectations,” Patkin says. “As a parent, don’t support the notion that they should be good at everything. Instead, tell your child that everyone is good at some things and not so good at others—it’s what makes us human!”

Help your kids develop the power of perspective.

Kids live in a small world where even the “little stuff” is a huge deal. (Case in point: Mom, Sarah wore the same shirt to school that I did! Or, I didn’t get to play on the same kickball team as Jimmy today!) And as you know from experience, the problems kids encounter in elementary school don’t compare to the ones encountered in high school, which don’t even begin to compare to the ones faced as an adult.

“Negative things will happen to all of us,” he confirms. “But often, we make it so much worse by dwelling on the past, beating ourselves up mercilessly for mistakes, and worrying about what might happen at some point in the future. I remember doing all of those things on a regular basis when I was a kid, and I certainly wasn’t the only one.

“From now on, when your child is faced with a problem or disappointment, sit down with him and make a list of all of the things he is good at—for instance, talented soccer player, wonderful big brother, great artist—and then point out how one mistake is a drop in the bucket amidst all of his other successes. Keep the list handy to pull out as a reminder in the future!”

Raise your kids to be helpers.

As adults, we know how great it can feel when we give back to others. Helping another person—whether it’s through service, teaching, or donating your resources—connects you to the rest of humanity in a powerful way. It also cultivates qualities like selflessness, empathy, and generosity, which are crucial building blocks when it comes to creating healthy, happy kids who grow into fulfilled, balanced adults.

“Sit down and talk with your kids about what it means to give back and why it’s important, and discuss all the ways to do it,” Patkin suggests. “Make sure they understand that giving back doesn’t just mean donating money, and that generosity is not limited to giving away things you no longer want. Then, make a list of projects that your kids are interested in participating in. Have conversations with them throughout the process, helping them to tap into how philanthropy makes them feel and who they’re helping.”

Give your kids the gift of gratitude.

Unless you live under a rock, you’ve encountered youngsters who are selfish, entitled, impolite, and just plain nasty to others. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that these qualities don’t tend to cultivate a happy life (after all, who’d want to spend much time with you?), nor are they indicative of an inherently happy person. Fortunately, there’s an antidote to make sure your kids don’t take everything and everyone in their lives for granted: gratitude.

“An attitude of gratitude might be a clichéd concept, but I know from experience that having one can change the way you look at and interact with the world,” promises Patkin. “When you realize on a daily basis how fortunate you are—from being born in this country to having food on your table to having a family who loves you—you’ll develop perspective and compassion. You’ll have stronger, more genuine relationships, and you’ll look at the world with a healthy perspective instead of believing it revolves around you. That’s true for kids as well as adults!

Make happiness a priority for your family.

If you take a long, hard look at your family’s lifestyle, you may be surprised by the conclusions you come to. For many families, things like academics, sports, or other activities may actually be in the top priority slots—and they may not be making any of you as happy as you once thought they did. Make no mistake: What you prioritize in your family unit will become the things your kids learn to prioritize too, well into adulthood.

“Sit down with your kids and talk about the things that make them happy,” Patkin advises. “Try to get a feel for whether or not their daily and weekly activities fulfill them. Ask questions like, ‘Does playing softball make you feel good?’ or, ‘What were you doing today when you felt the best?’ If you hear surprising answers, talk about what your family could be doing differently. This isn’t a one-time exercise, either. Sitting down on a regular basis to talk about how to reprioritize will make a happier family and will give your kids the valuable skill of evaluating their own lives and letting go of the things that aren’t working.”

Todd Patkin grew up in Needham, MA. After graduating from Tufts University, he joined the family business and spent the next 18 years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy.