The Four Keys to a Happy Family

Has this ever happened to you? You and your husband and your two kids are sitting at a table in a restaurant. You’re waiting for your food to arrive. Donna is flicking ice cubes at Jeremy and he’s squealing at the top of his lungs. Your table is a mess because Jeremy drove his cars all over it. You’re thinking, “Why me?” You look over at the next table and see two kids, one is coloring and the other is talking to her mom and dad. “Why couldn’t that be us?” you think to yourself. The truth is–YOU CAN! Happiness is not magic, there’s a sure-fired way of achieving it and anybody can do it. Here’s how:

1. Respect is not just a way of being you expect from your kids. It’s a courtesy you also pay to your children and yourself. Respect is a two-way street: if you don’t give it, you won’t get it back. If your children are tuning you out, you need to look not at what you’re asking, but how you’re asking it. Are you nagging, yelling, hitting, talking down, following double standards, or doing jobs for your kids they can do themselves? These all say, “I don’t respect you.” At the same time how do you respond to your children when they ask you something? Replies like “just a minute,” “not this again,” “go ask your mom,” and “don’t bug me,” give kids the message they’re not important.

Yes, you have to earn respect–even from your kids. You do this by putting down your newspaper and talking to them, helping them glue the part that fell off their clay sculpture, and helping them find a solution to their BIG problem. Taking the time to show your children you care about them will rub off on their attitude towards you. When people are nice to you, you can’t help but be nice to them. Your kids will want to help you, and even offer to help before you have a chance to ask them.

Don’t take the part about respecting yourself lightly either. People treat you the way you let them. If you let your kids walk over you, they will–even if they don’t want to. It’s natural for children to push limits. What some parents don’t understand is that children want you to say “Stop, that’s far enough.” It’s when parents don’t set limits that children get the uneasy feeling they’re in charge, and that’s when bigger problems crop up.

2. Have fun with your kids. This doesn’t mean playing Barbie dolls, something your daughter loves but you hate, or going shopping for clothes, something you love but she hates. Pick an activity you both enjoy, and is guaranteed to make you laugh. Watching T.V. is out. You may both like watching T.V., and it may even make you laugh, but watching T.V. doesn’t go a long way in building family ties.

Having fun should not always come after the chores and homework are done. Some parents make the mistake of thinking their kid’s grades in school will determine their success in life. Not so. Success and happiness come more from well-adjustment and self-confidence than grades. Your kids become well-adjusted by you saying, “Hey, you’ve been at that science project for two hours, why don’t we go for a bike ride together?” not by saying, “There will be no fun for you until your science project is finished!” Fun and laughter are more likely to motivate your children to learn, work, and accomplish goals than constantly keeping their nose to the grindstone.

3. Joey is trying to climb a rope. His dad is helping him. Joey is trying to pull himself up, but he’s only inched up about a foot. Joey lets go of the rope and falls to the ground. “I can’t do this,” he says, holding back a tear. Joey’s dad replies, “I know you can’t son. It’s too hard for you right now, but I’ll bet in a year’s time, when your muscles are bigger, you’ll get halfway up this rope. You sure held on though. You really gave it your best shot didn’t you.” “Yah, I did,” Joey says. “You wait and see dad, I’m going to be the best rope-climber ever,” Joey asserts. “I know you will son,” his dad replies, putting his arm around Joey’s shoulder.

Sam gets on the rope next. His dad is also helping him. Sam wants to make it to the top of the rope. He’s already made it three-quarters of the way up a few times. Sam is only two feet away from the top, but he can’t go any further. He comes down with a thud. “I’ll never get to the top; it’s hopeless,” he whimpers. Sam’s dad tries to make Sam feel better. “You’ll get to the top, no problem. You’ve already made it three-quarters of the way. I’m so proud of you son. You’re a fantastic rope-climber,” he says reassuringly. “No, I’m not,” Sam replies, pounding his fist on the mat.

Both Joey and Sam need encouragement. Why does Joey seem more positive about his rope-climbing ability than Sam–even though Sam is much better? Joey’s dad tells it like it is; Joey doesn’t have the physical strength to climb a rope. At the same time he has faith in Joey that one day he will make it to the top. His feelings are true and genuine, and Joey knows it. Sam’s dad, on the other hand, tries to snow-job Sam. He tries to boost Sam’s self-confidence by pouring on the praise. Sam is confused because his performance isn’t worth ranting and raving about. Sam’s dad, while trying to encourage his son, has in fact done the opposite, discourage him.

Encouragement and praise are not the same. Your child fails his science test and you encourage him to keep trying. Your child gets an A on his science test and you praise him. Your children need encouragement all the time, because they’re constantly learning, and failure is a part of learning. You encourage your children when they’re down in the dumps and feel like they’re not good enough. You want them to have faith in themselves and develop the courage to try again. Encouragement recognizes effort and improvement, while praise is left till the end, for your child’s final accomplishment. Praise such as “You’re the best,” is a value judgment–yours; whereas encouragement focuses more on how children feel about what they did, for instance, “You seem happy with your painting.” Praise is like a reward. You praise your children for winning and being the best. Encouragement, however, does not compare your children to others. Sam is not a good rope-climber because he made it further than Joey. Sam is a good rope-climber because he made it two feet from the top, further than he has ever gone before.

If you’re like most parents you use praise and encouragement interchangeably without thinking. The truth of the matter is we congratulate our children every day. The comprehension of my 18 month-old daughter doesn’t go far beyond “good girl,” and sometimes my son needs to hear that he’s the best kid in the world. Praise can be encouraging, so long it’s genuine and doesn’t have any ulterior motives. If your child thinks he’s a loser, praise can help him realize the many wonderful qualities he has. Or if your child gets a “B” in science, when he has never broken the “C” barrier, don’t hesitate to praise him. At the same time be sure your children aren’t using praise as a means of getting your attention. You want your children’s self-esteem to be free of your praise. For more reading on praise, look at Part II, Praise: Don’t lay it on too thick, and The right way to praise.

Below are eight sure-fire ways of encouraging your children:

1. Have faith in your children and they will grow to believe in themselves. Few children think more of themselves than what their parents do.

2. Accept your kids the way they are, and don’t try to mould them in a way they weren’t meant to go.

3. Recognize your children’s efforts along the way; don’t wait until the end of their journey to say, “Hey, this is fantastic, you’ve put together half the puzzle pieces!”

4. Set reasonable standards for your children. Don’t expect too much, but then don’t make it too easy either. Some parents are mistaken in thinking that easy victories will elevate their children’s self-esteem. Wrong! Don’t try to fool your children into thinking a piddly deal is really a big deal. It won’t work. Children know when they deserve a fuss.

On the other hand, don’t expect perfection from your children. Children should be encouraged, not expected to pursue perfection. It’s nice to have a kid who can draw flawless dinosaurs, but it’s not healthy if that’s all they know. Children who always have to be No. 1 and always winning generally have a small sphere of activities they’re willing to try. They’re afraid to try anything they don’t feel confident it, because not being first to them is threatening. It takes courage to be imperfect.

You need to reassure your children that mistakes are a part of learning and growing, and in most cases, less important than what they do after making them. Being Top Dog does not last forever, because there will always be someone who is better than them. In life the main goal of anything we do, is to be our best. This is the true measure of success, not how we compare to others.

If you see your children letting go of activities they used to enjoy, ask yourself whether they’re expecting too much of themselves. They might be narrowing their range, because they don’t want to settle for second-best. Reminding them of their past excellence will only heighten their feelings of pressure. You might want to try some non-standard activities like making a monster sandwich, painting the ugliest picture you can, or dancing like a robot. These give children the freedom to have fun without worrying about being the best.

5. Focus on what your children do right, not on what they do wrong. Be positive.

6. Pay attention to your children’s strengths; what they like about themselves and the activities they want to do over and over again. Find ways your kids can make meaningful contributions to your family. Children need to know they can be useful and help other people.

7. Respect your children. Think of your children as friends. They have feelings, thoughts about the world, values, fears, ambitions, foods they love as well as hate, and activities they enjoy. You wouldn’t serve your friends pork chop casserole if you knew they were vegetarian. By the same token you wouldn’t tell your friends to go home or yell at them if they broke your favorite dish. You’ll find respect goes a long way in developing your child’s identity and empathy for other people.

8. Show and tell your children every day, no matter what, you love them. To feel secure children need to know they have at least one significant person they can love and will love them back. You show your love with a hug, kiss, and holding hands. You tell your love by saying, “I love you,” especially when your child least expects it. Your love for your children cannot have strings attached to it. It must prevail, regardless of their behavior.