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Jon Lasser, Ph.D.
Jon Lasser, Ph.D.

How to Raise Happy Kids

A few simple steps can help foster happiness.

Happiness is important to us, and most parents report that they want their children to be happy. Despite the desire and effort, only about a third of Americans report that they're happy. This may not be terribly surprising, given our confusion about happiness. We often conflate happiness with money or material goods, or focus disproportionately on fleeting happiness rather than enduring fulfillment.

As parents, we can learn a lot from psychological theory and research to help us better understand what kids need to develop and thrive emotionally. Applying the psychological principles to everyday interactions can help us help kids learn how to cultivate their own happiness. A good starting point is Choice Theory, developed by the late Dr. William Glasser.

Glasser recognized that we have basic needs that include freedom, fun, and belonging. When those needs aren't adequately met, we tend to feel frustrated and unhappy. Have you considered ways in which your children's needs may not be fully met? A child needs to be able to make choices, move about freely, and have the capacity to exercise some will (freedom).

When children are overly managed, scheduled, and controlled, they feel that their freedom is deprived, and they don't like it. They may not be able to express this in words, but they often show us with their behaviors. Consider how much freedom your children have and, if appropriate, try to find ways to increase it. Yes, increased freedom may present new challenges, but we want kids to take risks and learn from their mistakes. Some limits must always be imposed, so this is in no way a call for total freedom (one should not let a toddler walk around a swimming pool unsupervised). But all kids need a certain about of choice and freedom absent adult control.

Kids also have a need to feel like they belong in their family, school, and community for their happiness. Though smartphones and digital technologies have the potential to connect us, many parents feel like screens have replaced face to face contact and have been more isolating than connecting. Find ways to connect with your children (and to connect them with others) without screens. This will look different depending on the age of the child, but you could try board game night, bowling, or a camping trip. Many kids will forget about screens once they're engaged with others in enriching activities.

Adults and children often have different ways of thinking about time, so it's important for parents to understand that kids are often more focused on immediate happiness, whereas adults tend to focus on a child's future happiness. For example, Kevin's parents want him to do his homework (so that he will be successful in school, work, etc.), but Kevin wants to ride his bike around the neighborhood with his friends. Kevin thinks about what makes him happy right now, but his parents are thinking about his happiness in the future.

Both are important, and it's the adults who often fail to value the happiness of now. In many cases, we can accomplish both (Kevin can ride his bike and then do his homework). Parents and kids will be happiest when these issues are resolved collaboratively.


Here's How Happy Americans Are Right Now. Retrieved from

About the Author
Jon Lasser, Ph.D.

Jon Lasser, Ph.D., is a professor of school psychology at Texas State University.

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