We often hear parents say: "I just want you to be happy." The definition of happiness certainly varies person to person, but at the heart of this wish, we want our children to experience delight, to feel loved and to love others, and to be strong and resilient in the face of life’s challenges. Here are 10 simple actions we can take to create a positive, safe and happy environment for our children, one that is infused with inspiration, wonder and joy.
1. Read Aloud Every Day
Reading aloud is one of the easiest and most lasting gifts you can give to your child. From the lilt in your voice to the characters you bring to life, your child will have clear and positive reading experiences from the earliest age. Reading aloud from a variety of genres—news articles, picture books, poetry or novels—will encourage your child to embrace text in all forms. Reading aloud is also tremendously beneficial in developing literacy skills. The Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research found that reading aloud to children every day puts them almost a year ahead of children who do not receive daily read alouds. Plus, the coziness of being together and falling through the pages into a story is a wonderful way to bond with your child.
2. Keep an Inspiration Journal
Help your child start recording their own story by keeping a written record of her daily inspirations, discoveries, questions and experiences. Don’t forget to write down the concrete moments, when she saw the ocean for the first time or spent the night in a tent in the backyard, or what she noticed traveling on the subway. Someday those will seem like big moments of memory. By taking the time to write down ideas and experiences, your child will become a close reader of the world who seeks beauty in small moments, and will also learn that her words and experiences are important, and valued.
Music brings emotion and creates community. Your child doesn’t care if you are a broadway star or an amateur shower performer, singing together is one of the most fun activities in a child’s life and she thinks you sound great. For babies, lullabies, songs and rhymes are the precursor to lifelong literacy. For older children, songs introduce complex ideas and vocabulary. For all children, song brings mundane tasks to life and is a great tool for memorization (such as making a song to remember a phone number or to get a chore done more easily). The songs you sing together will carry forward to the next generation of your family.
4. Be Co-Explorers of the World
Dedicate time every week to learn something new with your child. Not only will this show him how much you value the pursuit of curiosity and learning, it also levels the playing field, allowing you to relate to each other’s struggles and celebrate mutual triumphs along the way. Take a dance class, a self defense seminar or a gardening workshop with your child and grow together. As time goes on the skill you learned will be a bonding experience that ties you together wherever you are in the world.
5. Create a Family Mission Statement
This is a wonderful opportunity to discuss what you value as a family, and to build a strong family narrative that will ground your child when making small and large decisions in her independent life. Make your child’s opinions and ideas central in this exercise. Ask your child how she would want others to see her family and understand it. Decide together how you can record the mission statement, where you will display it, and how you will translate the ideas into concrete action.
6. Serve Your Community Together
Find a local organization (use your mission statement as a guide) and volunteer as a family. Encourage your children to be community leaders by asking them what they would like to change about their community, and make an action plan outlining what it will take to create this change. Savor the small moments together helping to paint a house, or share books with a child who needs them, or put together a collection of good food to share with someone who is hungry. Those shared moments will lead to rich conversation and embed in your child a sense that lifetime commitments to serving the community both matter and also make us feel good.
7. Cook Together
Food is the glue that binds every family together—it forces us to stop our busy day so that we can take a breath, sit down and enjoy the fulfillment of food and the company of our loved ones. Sitting around the table together isn’t always an option, so create time to be together by making your child an assistant chef. It is important to have people helping in the kitchen, giving you a chance to talk and teach and learn. Cooking is a tradition that is passed down from generation to generation, connecting your child to the past and bringing your family’s history into the future.
8. Relish the "Mess"
Too often we miss moments of joy because we are distracted by small things that won’t matter in 10 years (or even 10 minutes). Instead of worrying about on-lookers, a messy house, or stained clothes, lose yourself in the joy of a sidewalk dance party, help construct a massive blanket fort in the living room, and revel in the magnificent insect found in the sandbox. These moments are fleeting and there will be time later to tidy up together. Not only that, the clean-up process will be more enjoyable because the “mess” came from a moment of pure joy.
9. Make Positive Affirmations a Daily Routine
Your child is trying to find her place in this chaotic world. This is not an easy thing to do and is an on-going process even for adults. Help your child navigate her journey by affirming the choices she makes. This can be a word of encouragement, a little jingle you sing when you’re proud, or modeling your fingers as shooting stars flying her way. Be open to all ideas and play with every possibility that she ponders, allowing her to think aloud and chart her own course with your support and unwavering belief.
10. Cultivate a Gratitude Attitude
Expressing gratitude and identifying the things that we are grateful for (however small) fosters optimism, compassion and hope. Keep a chart on the wall or the fridge and fun markers and pens that your child can use to document what he loves about his family. Keeping this chart in a visible, reachable place where your child can easily go to when a thought crosses his mind will make finding and communicating gratitude second nature.