"Today is my birthday," Jenny* whispered in a class I help teach, clearly feeling proud. I asked if it would be alright if the class sang her the "happy birthday" song, and she nodded eagerly. So, wanting to help this child feel happy, loved, and valued everywhere she went that day, we gave her lots of attention, which she gleefully accepted.
A few minutes into the class, I inquired, "So, how old are you today?" She responded with all the confidence in the world, "I think I'm about five and a half!"
Her response made me laugh.
And then, I confess that a small part of me was tempted to renege on the celebrating.
Catching myself in my "over-adulting," though, I think she was doing exactly what many of us should embrace: celebrating life, just for the heck of it. So, on we went, celebrating her special "five and a half-ish" birthday, just as it was.
"I'm so glad you're here," we said.
"It's really fun to dance with you," we informed.
I sensed nothing manipulative in her motives. She just wanted to feel some impromptu joy, so she created it. And we followed her lead. What makes a child feel happy is knowing he or she is important.
Happy kids not only feel better, but studies show that they also do better academically and otherwise. So we, as adults, have plenty of motivation to help them feel comfortable and joyful. To be clear, I don't believe anyone can "make" anyone else happy. However, there are many tangible things the adults in their lives can do to help kids feel happy, loved, and valued. Here are four of my favorites.
This is different from you loving them; it's helping them feel it in the ways they uniquely need according to their (not your) love language. It's the way they can best understand the strength of your love: your knowing what makes this specific child happy. This insightful book outlines five love languages, including gifts, acts of service, touch, quality time, and words of affirmation.
Even if their love language is "gifts," research shows that giving to others reaps greater rewards, even for young children. So, use the power of this knowledge wisely, if that's their love language. Whatever their love language is, though, be aware that it might differ from yours. It might take some practice to express love differently for their benefit. What makes a child happy is feeling loved in the ways that speak to their unique heart.
While raising happy children is a priority for parents, it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day tasks we need to accomplish as responsible adults. Particularly if your child's love language is quality time, involve them in not only the "big things," but also in the little daily events, mundane as they may seem. Even better, combine the power of touch with quality time. I've unloaded the dishwasher with my five-year-old on my hip more times than I can count. (She's nearly half my weight, so it's good exercise, too!) I make eye contact with her and smile, then hand her the dishes that go where she can't normally reach. She puts them in their proper places, happy to connect in the ordinary necessities of life.
We can help kids feel important by involving them in the things that may not matter much to us, but still allow us to connect.
Here, you can cover a lot of happiness bases at once. Find good quality books that not only help children learn about age-appropriate topics, but that also promote joy and a growth mindset. Awhile back, I posted a list of my favorite books to help kids build self-esteem and confidence. However, as I wrote then and I'll state again, the messages "sink in" a lot better if you don't just read the books, but also discuss them with your children. What traits do you see in the characters that your kids do well? Tell them. What helps kids feel important is knowing for sure that you "see" them along with their strengths.
Most kids enjoy when family members read them books, regardless. One part of the kids' enjoyment may be that books can touch on, well, touch (no pun intended). Time on your lap or sitting shoulder-to-shoulder offers physical connection, if that's your child's love language. The words you use when discussing the books easily lend themselves to words of affirmation. Reading together is definitely quality time, and that naturally helps kids feel happy. Even older kids benefit from reading aloud together. I have loving memories of my Mom reading the Nancy Drew series to me long after I could read alone. Her spending time doing something with me that I could do alone, helped me feel important to her.
Every day before bedtime, I ask my daughter three questions that I didn't invent, but that give me helpful insight:
Knowing I'll ask those questions every evening, I'm intentional about making her laugh. I listen to what was hardest and empathize, and I take note of what she enjoyed most so that we can replicate it. Replicating those moments of happiness--not exactly as they happened, but in familiar ways--keeps joy on the forefront of our minds, as well as in our activities. Part of fostering positive child development is knowing the child in front of me.
Oftentimes, it isn't the "big" events that stick out for her. What she cites most often are times she felt emotionally connected, no matter where we were.
Positive parenting helps promote your child's trust in your unconditional love. Connect through dedicated special time together and really "see" your child. Modeling genuine happiness helps, too; studies show that we benefit from observing the habits of happy people of all ages. And that might just mean throwing an impromptu "five and half-ish" birthday party because, well, why not?