What makes children happy?

The key to a child’s happiness may not be what you think.

I am fortunate to live in a neighborhood with families who have children the same ages as my kids. The parents in our neighborhood work hard together to make sure that our children have many opportunities for indoor and outdoor play that does not revolve around electronics, video games or other expensive toys. For most of us, we figured that what really makes our children happiest is playing together for hours on end with water balloons, sidewalk chalk and soccer balls, often until the sun goes down. Video games, iPad’s, iPod’s and cell phones still compete for our children’s attention, but we limit the exposure to these items for a variety of reasons. Chief among those reasons is the desire to have socially and emotionally healthy children. Therefore, we try not to make it about the “stuff’ and more about spending time with friends whose company they enjoy; learning how to get along and share; and having a sense of connection to their community and the world around them.

Does the key to the happiness of children really rest in playing simple activities with friends and not the obsession with the latest trendy electronic toy? Research seems to indicate that it does. Studies throughout the U.S. and Europe have looked at measures of children’s social and emotional wellbeing and have drawn the same conclusion – the things that really make children happy are not “things” at all. They’re really life conditions, such as having enough nurture and love; a strong sense of attachment to a parent or other primary caregiver; confidence and optimism about the future; physical health; a sense of belonging to something larger than oneself; and of course, basic needs such as food and shelter.

There is a correlation between having money to acquire “things” and happiness, but only to the extent that it influences the conditions of happiness listed above (Carter, University of California (UC) Berkeley, 2013). For example, kids with health insurance tend to be more physically healthy than poor children without insurance, who can’t keep up with immunizations. Or an affluent family might be able to belong to an athletic club where children have friends and other families who they know and who know them – attributing to the sense of being a part of something greater than yourself.

Children in the U.S. are an interesting case in point. According to scholars at the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, over the past 35 years the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the U.S. has risen and when this happens, happiness usually rises. However, despite a rise in the GDP, the reported average happiness level has not gone up. The center states that one of the reasons children in the U.S. are not as happy as children in other countries is because of the financial pressure faced by parents and less institutional and work place support for working parents. Specifically, pressure to have money to purchase “things” for their children – designer clothing, expensive video games, etc. In addition to that, many parents provide these things to compensate for the time they are not able to spend with them because of heavy workloads, inflexible jobs and other demands for their time. It’s a vicious cycle. With less maternity leave, workplace flexibility and family friendly policies than most other developed nations; the U.S. is a harder place for families.

Regardless of a child’s socioeconomic status, Michigan State University Extension encourages that there are steps parents can take to contribute to their child’s social and emotional wellbeing. Parents should spend as much time as they can providing love and nurture to their children. They can also make sure their children have friendships and time to develop connections with others. Finally, parents must assure that their child’s basic needs of food, shelter and clothing are met and if not, seek support for those things. As long as parents focus on what’s truly important, children have a good shot at growing up happy, healthy and whole.

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