"In my mother's eyes, I only saw smiles."
That's the response an accomplished man once gave when asked how he'd achieved so much in life. I heard—and loved—this quote the other night at a school talk given by Edward Hallowell, M.D., a renowned child psychiatrist, lecturer and author. His most recent book is The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness, and he based it on a wide span of research from top experts. Of course I went; how could you not go to a seminar about how to raise a happy kid who turns into a happy adult? Besides, I wanted to make sure I wasn't screwing up the kids.
Turns out that the key to giving kids the confidence and hope they need to grow up to be happy adults is something most of us already naturally do. (Phew.) "The greatest gift you can give a child is a childhood rich in connections," Dr. Hallowell said. At its most distilled, a connection is love. And yet, there are many, many other ways to forge them.
• Make time for fun—outings, family dinner, special time together, reading at bedtime.
• Nourish friendships. Encourage kids to have good friends and connect with other people in the neighborhood.
• Make sure your child feels connected to school—does he feel welcome and safe there, does he look forward to doing things there, does he feel safe to have the brain that he has there? Dr. Hallowell spoke of being a first-grader in the fifties and struggling to learn to read. "My diagnosis: Stupid!" he said. "My IEP? Go stand in the corner!" But then he had a wonderful first grade teacher, a rather plump woman who used to pull up a chair next to young Hallowell's during reading time and put her arm around his shoulder as he tried to read, her pillowy body by his side. That teacher's presence, he said, "took away my fear and shame and thinking I was a loser for struggling to read."
• Create connections to the past—help kids understand where family came from, your ethnic group, your religion, how grandparents lived before phones and cars existed, how you ended up living where you did.
• Connect to a pet—a cat, dog, bird, fish, whatever. Pets teach kids about love and responsibility.
• Connect to nature. Get the kids off the TV after school and outdoors.
• Connect to special places, activities, teams, clubs and organizations that make life rich.
Dr. Hallowell spoke of other important ways to raise happy kids: do activities that light up their imaginations (because when you have a strong imagination, anything seems possible in this world); encourage them to ask questions; help them find something they love to do—ideally something at which they can make progress, an instant confidence builder.
But really, the thing that matters most to growing happy kids is the connections we make for them...and that eternal arm around their shoulders.
I know, if I know anything, that the moms and dads who visit here have your arms around your children's shoulders.