Here’s the secret to raising happy kids, according to science

Mar 21, 2014, 1:31 AM | Updated: 1:31 am

SALT LAKE CITY — Parenting is tricky business. The hours are long, the pay is non-existent and there’s a good chance every parent considers shipping their children to boot camp at some point during their lifetime.

Or is that just me?

The point is, being a mother or father is hard work, but the thing that unites us is our desire to help our children live happy, productive lives. Whether it’s a smile from an infant or a hug from a teenager, moments where we recognize bliss in our children make all the sleepless nights more than worth it.

As far as I know, there’s no user manual in existence that parents can take home from the hospital along with the tiny, unpredictable and downright terrifying person they’ve welcomed into their world. But scientists at Happify took a look at a broad range of studies involving happy kids and decided to take a shot at compiling all the best information into one shiny infographic they hope will serve parents as well as a pack of fruit snacks does.

So what can parents do to help their children become happy, contributing members of society? Let’s take a look.

Nurture is king (or queen)

For starters, focus on nurturing. While it may seem like an obvious suggestion, the impact is far more than just emotional — it’s biological as well.

In fact, children with nurturing mothers actually have bigger brains, according to one study. Sounds crazy, but it’s true. The study focused on the hippocampus — the part of the brain that handles stress and memory. Preschoolers with supportive moms had a 10 percent larger hippocampus than those whose mothers struggled in the nurturing department.

On the flip side, kids who feel rejected or unloved by their parents are more likely to develop hostility, aggression and/or emotional instability, Happify reports.

Moms need happiness too

Turns out parenting isn’t all about the kids all the time. Moms, it’s time to invest in yourself — not just for you, but for your children as well. Happify found that a mother’s satisfaction with her life has more of an impact on the healthy development of her child’s social and emotional skills than her education, her income, whether or not she’s employed or the amount of time the child spends in day care.

So go to dinner with your girlfriends. Draw that bubble bath. Do what you have to do to feel satisfied, and chances are your kids will benefit too.

Dads matter, big time

As for fathers — the role you play in your child’s life is a crucial one. In fact, one study found that feeling loved by dad made more of an impact on a kid’s life satisfaction than feeling loved by mom. So what makes a super dad? Happify found the most effective fathers listen to their kids and facilitate a close relationship with them. Also important: setting appropriate rules while at the same time giving kids freedom when warranted.

Fight fair

The way couples interact with each other doesn’t go unnoticed by the little people in the household. Children who grow up with parents who fight ugly are more likely to have trouble with school, drugs, alcohol and overall emotional well-being than kids whose parents are less hostile.

Walk on the sunny side of the street

Optimism is key. From a young age, kids look to parents to see how they should react to the world around them. If a parent faces a problem with a smile, the child will likely take that same approach. One study found kids who learn to look at the glass half full by the time they’re 10 years of age are half as likely to suffer from depression during puberty.

When it comes to praise, acknowledge effort over intelligence and skill. Happify reports kids who receive accolades and encouragement for their attempts are more motivated and enjoy taking on new tasks.

Custom parenting

Researchers found that children whose parents applied a one-size-fits-all approach instead of catering to individual personalities were twice as likely to be anxious or depressed. Take time to notice what works with each child and make an effort to parent to their needs.

Children need purpose

Adults are happier and feel more fulfilled when they have meaningful activities and responsibilities populating their routine. Not surprisingly, the same concept applies to children. Help your kids find meaning in life by giving them opportunities to express themselves, serve others and volunteer their time.

As parents encourage generosity, studies show their children will be happier and more liked by their classmates. In fact, researchers reported even toddlers enjoy sharing treats more than they like being on the receiving end. It’s never too soon to start teaching kids to give.

The happiest kids

Sometimes it’s best to just go to the source. Researchers involved in a 12-country study asked more than 4,600 children what made them happiest. The results? Family, friends, playing, participating in sports and toys.

That same study ranked the United States as fifth out of the 12 countries for happiest children. The happiest children can be found in Mexico, with Poland landing at the bottom of the list.

Happify is a website run by scientists and programmers devoted to discovering and promoting the science behind true happiness. The company released a similar infographic revealing the science behind the world’s happiest marriages last month.

Jessica Ivins is a content manager for KSL.com and contributor to the Motherhood Matters section.

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Here’s the secret to raising happy kids, according to science