I see you, mama. You are working so hard to make sure your kids have a good life, free of the challenges and disappointments you faced when you were a kid.
You wake up early, you work hard at home, you work long hours at the office, and then you come home to work longer hours at home.
You want to protect your babies from the hardships and heartaches you experienced. You want them to be happy and successful, and you go out of your way every single day to make that their future.
I've spent a lot of time recently thinking about what I do and don't want for my kids. Some time ago, I wrote 101 Life Lessons to Teach My Daughters and 35 Things I Hope My Kids Will Say About Me Someday, and those words still ring true. I know you've thought about what you want your kids to know and do and say, too.
So how do we stack the deck in our kids' favors? What can we do to make sure they grow up to be happy and successful adults?
I think there are as many answers to this question as there are mamas, but here's my take on the steps and secrets to raising happy, successful kids who grow up to be happy, successful adults:
10 Secrets to Raising Happy, Successful Kids Who Will Become Happy, Successful Adults
- Set a good example. Mama, you have more influence over those little people than anyone else in their lives. Neither their father nor their teacher nor their grandparents hold their hearts the way that you do. So use your influence wisely, and show them what it means to be happy and successful. Enjoy your life by practicing self-care and having lots of fun. Be grateful. Do your work faithfully and share your successes with your family.
But it's not enough to just look happy. You have to actually be happy and content with your circumstances. Your kids know when you're just phoning it in, no matter how well you think you're hiding it. They know when you're looking at them and nodding with your mind a thousand miles away. Get into their lives, and do it with a genuine smile.
- Share your setbacks. I don't mean to imply that you should have a Pollyanna attitude with your kids. That doesn't help either, because they will assume defeat at the first sign of adversity. Rather, you should show them how you face and conquer the trials in your life, how you accept the things that come with peace and serenity, and how you work hard to tackle them and emerge victorious. Model hard work and perseverance.
- Teach them gratitude. Gratitude can be hard for kids (and adults) when the next cool toy is only a YouTube video away. Start a family gratitude jar or simply say what you're thankful for every night at dinner. This is another area in which it's important to model the behavior, so writing down a list of things you're thankful for will help you to show this to your kids. I do this every morning, right after I eat my breakfast. I can usually come up with 3-6 things that I'm thankful for that minute, ranging from "I woke up early enough to walk 4 miles this morning" to "Pickles is purring in my lap." They don't have to be deep or incredibly thoughtful, just be present in your life and thank God that He gave you the blessings you have.
- Catch them doing good. We are so quick to notice when our kids screw up, aren't we? I know I am. But how often do you praise them for doing the right thing, for behaving, for sharing, for offering kindness? Psychologists will tell you that positive reinforcement works with a much higher success rate than does negative reinforcement (punishments). You will reinforce their good behaviors simply by praising and rewarding them.
I'm not saying that you should give your kids a tangible reward every time they brush their teeth. I don't mean that at all and actually think that would be pretty lousy parenting. What you should do is selectively praise them for doing a good job, maybe for going above and beyond. Do offer small rewards when they do something special.
What you do not want is the situation I had about a month ago. Allie, my adventurous 7-year-old, was determined to climb the 50-foot climbing wall at the Girl Scout camp. She tried and failed and tried and failed and tried and failed a third time. I told her all along that I was proud of her no matter how she did. Well, she persevered and tried a fourth time and made it all the way to the top. My heart was ready to explode with pride, and I know that she was very very thrilled with herself. It was a completely superlatively awesome experience, right up until she got to the bottom of the wall and said, "You're going to take me out for ice cream for that, right? That definitely deserves a reward of ice cream." I was annoyed and dismayed at the same time – I thought the achievement of reaching her goal should have been reward enough, and I don't want my kids to expect a tangible reward every time they achieve something.
- Teach them to accept and appreciate feedback. I say feedback, but what I really mean is criticism. No one likes critical feedback. I'm especially bad at this, often silently pouting and then fuming when someone criticizes me. What I have learned over my 39 years is that feedback - both positive and negative, but especially negative - has the power to teach me and shape my future behavior. When I accept the feedback and adjust my expectations and reactions, I can learn and grow and become a better person.
Most people, when criticized, either feel bad about themselves or get angry at the messenger, but neither is productive. What we should do when criticized is analyze and examine the message as feedback that might help us to correct a mistake.
Is all criticism valid? No, of course not. But if we can teach our children to look at it without emotions and without beating themselves up, they can learn to figure out whether there's something in their behavior that needs adjusting or if they can just let go of the words. So how do you do this? I recommend changing the way you criticize and modeling with them how to accept it as feedback.
- Use a kind but firm tone of voice. Don't ever criticize when you're angry or frustrated.
- Hug her and tell her that you have something to tell her about a mistake she made. Tell her that you love her and that's why you want to share this with her. You want to help her to learn from the mistake.
- Tell her what happened from your perspective and how you think she could have done better.
- If she corrects her behavior the next time, lavish the praise and recognize how she learned from her mistake.
- Encourage them to work with their siblings. Happy, successful people know how to work with the people around them, whoever those people happen to be. They are team players who cooperate and collaborate in almost every situation. What better time to encourage this behavior than with siblings?
I think God intended siblings to be partners, helpers, and friends, but most tv shows and movies show siblings as bickering and arguing and playing mean tricks on each other. We have to work to change this stereotype in our kids' minds.
Throughout every day, I look for ways that my girls can work together. I encourage them to pick up together, each one taking a different set of toys to gather. I encourage Grace to help Allie with her breakfast and Allie to help Grace with her clothes. I even encourage them to play Minecraft together, as they cooperate and help each other in that sphere too.
One thing you might try is saying, "Isn't great to have a sister? You are so lucky to have each other to get help when you need it."
- Encourage them to put others first. Self-seeking is a huge problem with kids (and adults, if we're honest). We look out for ourselves first, grabbing the best thing, the biggest portion. My husband is not that way; he always, always, always makes me choose first out of kindness and courtesy. We need to teach our children to be more like that, offering others the first pick even when it means we might not get what we want.
It's not just about getting things. We can put others ahead of ourselves in many different situations, and we have to model that for our kids. Allowing another driver to cut in, acquiescing to our families when we wanted to do something else, and of course, letting the other person choose first are all ways we can look out for others.
Know that this is going to be super hard for your kids. It's probably hard for you, too. As I said above, notice when they get it right and praise them for that.
- Be their cheerleader. Your kids need someone who believes in them 100%. They need your support, encouragement, and faithfulness. They need to know that there's someone in the world who believes in them absolutely, who believes they will succeed even when they don't believe it themselves.
- Resist the urge to rescue them. Grace hates math. Her IQ puts her in the profoundly gifted part of the spectrum, but she has a total mental block where math is concerned. She hates it, and she believes that she can't do it no matter what. I bought her a math curriculum put out by MIT specifically for gifted kids. It's not that it's harder than a normal curriculum, but it is more based on problem solving than rote memory and practice. I love the curriculum, but (of course), she hates it.
For every single problem, we start out by reading the question. Grace says she has no idea what to do. I could give her the answer at this point and move on, but I never do. I help her to figure out what the question is asking. Then I prompt her, in the tiniest baby steps, to work out what information she needs and what skills she should use. It might take us 15-20 minutes to solve a single problem, but she does the solving. I never give her an answer or tell her outright what to do. Through a painful series of leading questions, usually with tears involved, she figures it out for herself. (I have many feelings on the presence of tears in homeschool work, but that is an issue for another blog post.)
When we rescue our children, they learn several things:
- They learn that they can't handle their own problems.
- They learn that they are incapable.
- They learn that they shouldn't try next time because there's always an outside answer.
You may have guessed by now that I'm okay with my kids struggling and getting frustrated to find their own way. I am. I think it's important to feel challenged and to overcome. That's what successful people do, they face obstacles without fear and find their own solutions to problems.
- Love them fiercely. You love your children, and they know you love them, right? Right? They do, right?
When I was in high school, I was in a university program for first generation college students where we lived on campus for 6 weeks each summer. I don't think that's the right way to describe it actually, but suffice it to say that it was a program for underprivileged kids. Each of us had a counselor that we had to talk to a couple of times a week, and my counselor once asked me if my parents loved me.
Let me pause now to say that I know now that my parents loved me but at that time, at the age of 14, I had no answer. None at all. I didn't know what to say. I think I mumbled out something like, "I guess so."
Mama, I propose that your kids may not know what to say if you're not actively affectionate and effusive. They won't know that you love them unless you tell them and show them, actively, every day.
You may say "I love you" but fail to show it through your behavior. Or maybe you hug and kiss them but yell at them every day. Or maybe you brush them off when they try to talk to you or show you their games. None of these things are loving, my sweet friend. They are learning how to treat others by how you treat them, so tell them that you love them, hug and kiss them often, and pay close attention when they want to talk to you or show you something. Smile when you greet them. Spend one-on-one time with them, go on dates together. Play.
If you're struggling with how to show your kids you love them, read the book, The Five Love Languages of Children: The Secret to Loving Children Effectively by Gary Chapman. I read his original book long before I was even married, and it shapes the way I respond to my husband even today. The book for children is just as good, identifying the ways your children need and want you to respond to them, what will make them feel loved and appreciated. Read it if you're struggling with this concept.
The very last thing I want to do here is make you feel bad, inferior, or overwhelmed. You certainly don't need one more thing on your plate; I know that very well. What I am suggesting is that you can perhaps modify what you're doing to respond to your children in ways that will make them feel loved rather than ways that might miss the mark. Does that make sense?
These are my secrets to raising happy, successful children. If you're dealing with pouty, sulky kids or kids who give up without making a real effort, I'd challenge you to try some of the habits from the list above.
I'm not perfect, and I don't manage these things every minute of every day. I'll be the first to admit that my eyes glaze over when Allie brings me a screen and begs me to play Minecraft. But with effort and mindfulness, I do achieve them more often than not, and I think my kids are happier for it.