Make room for fun
Although a colorfuland her first taste of applesauce may bring a smile to your baby’s face, what makes your baby happiest is much simpler: you. And that’s the first key to creating a happy child says Hallowell. “Connect with your baby, play with her,” he advises. “If you’re having fun with your baby, she’s having fun. If you create what I call a ‘connected childhood,’ that is by far the best step to guarantee your child will be happy.”
Play creates joy, but play is also how your child will develop skills essential to future happiness. As she gets older, unstructured play will allow her to discover what she loves to do — build villages with blocks, make “potions” out of kitchen ingredients, paint elaborate watercolors — which can point her toward a career that will seem like a lifetime of play. Play doesn’t mean music class, organized sports, and other structured, “enriching” activities. Play is when children invent, create, and daydream.
Help them develop their talents
Hallowell’s prescription for creating lifelong happiness includes a surprising twist: Happy people are often those who have mastered a skill. For example, when your baby figures out how to get the spoon into his mouth or takes those first shaky steps by himself, he learns from his mistakes, he learns persistence and discipline, and then he experiences the joy of succeeding due to his own efforts.
He also reaps the reward of gaining recognition from others for his accomplishment. Most important, he discovers he has some control over his life: If he tries to do something, he can eventually do it. Research shows that this feeling of control through mastery is an important factor in determining adult happiness.
Hallowell warns that children, like adults, need to follow their own interests, or there’ll be no joy in their successes. Rebecca Marks of Cleveland Heights, Ohio, says that her 3-year-old son Zachary’s number one interest is construction. “He loves to build things and to help his dad build special projects. It makes him feel good about himself. We try to help him focus on what he has a natural talent for, where we can tell he’s really having fun.”
Healthy bodies, happy children
Lots of sleep, exercise, and a healthy diet are important to everyone’s well-being, especially children’s. Giving your baby plenty of space to release her energy, whether that means kicking her legs in the air, crawling toward a beloved ball, or going back and forth — over and over and over — in the infantat the park, will help put her in a good mood. And pay attention to your baby’s need for structure: While some babies are very easygoing, most thrive and feel more settled with a set schedule.
You might also want to pay attention to any connection between your baby’s mood and particular foods; some parents find that while sugar can give their child an energy boost, it can also lead to fussiness. Food allergies and sensitivities may also play a role in your child’s behavior and mood. If you’re nursing, you may find that your baby becomes fussy after you eat certain foods. Talk to your child’s doctor if you suspect that your baby’sor diet is linked to signs of distress.
Let them struggle with problems
In the first six months of a baby’s life, it’s important for parents to respond to their infant’s needs. “You can’t spoil a baby,” says Masia-Warner. But after about six months, if you run over at every little hiccup, you’re taking away an important learning opportunity. Masia-Warner says it’s good to let babies cry a little as long as you’re giving them lots of positive affection and attention the rest of the time.
But, you say, I’m supposed to be creating a happy child! Shouldn’t I swoop down and make everything better? In fact, Masia-Warner sees this as a big mistake many loving, well-meaning parents make. “Parents try to make it better for their children all the time, to make them happy all the time. That’s not realistic. Don’t always jump in and try to fix it,” says Masia-Warner. “Children need to learn to tolerate some distress, some unhappiness. Let them struggle, figure out things on their own, because it allows them to learn how to cope.”
In your baby’s first year, he’s learning so many things: to sit up,, grasp objects, walk, and talk. Each accomplishment brings him confidence and satisfaction in his achievement. So don’t hurry to pick up the rattle he just dropped or the teddy bear he’s struggling to reach: Give him some time and encouragement to pick it up himself.
Hallowell agrees that allowing children a range of experiences, even the difficult or frustrating ones, helps build the reservoir of inner strength that leads to happiness. Whether a child’s 7 months old and trying to crawl or 7 years old and struggling with subtraction, Hallowell tells parents, he’ll get better at dealing with adversity simply by grappling with it successfully again and again.