Nurturing happiness can be very similar to the cultivation of a garden. Yes, you need initial resources to build the garden, but it is the care of the garden that makes it successful. As a parent, you strive to provide the essential resources for your child’s well-being and happiness like love, support and stability, but your child also can make choices and do things that impact her happiness.

Every summer lots of families dig in to their gardens, carefully planting and tending growing things to produce delicious foods and beautiful flowers. Whether or not your efforts are successful depends in part in what resources you put in to it (the seeds and plants, how much water is available, the quality of your soil), the choices you make (what to plant, where and when, if and how to fertilize) and the skills you apply (weeding, staking plants that need support, timely harvesting).  And then, of course, there’s the weather.

You can teach your child to recognize what makes her happy, how to make choices that support her happiness and how to employ skills that support ongoing happiness.

Is it a weed or a flower?

Help your child identify things or experiences that make her feel happy. Ask her “What makes you laugh? Tell me about a time when you had fun or felt happy. What were you doing? Who were you with?” Listen carefully to her response. Being able to identify specific situations or experiences that make a child happy will help her make choices and act to promote her own happiness.

Connect the dots for your child: “So looking at books while snuggling with your teddy bear, visiting Grandma and playing with our dog made you happy? That’s great. Do you think if you were feeling sad or having a hard day that doing one of those things might help you feel better?”

The idea that someone can proactively improve their mood or change their feelings may be new to a child. Children often feel like their feelings control them. Helping kids recognize the flowers in their garden (what makes them happy) and the weeds (what does not) allows them to take action to grow their happiness.

Should I plant peas or squash?

Your child can make specific choices that can enhance her happiness. Peas grow best in cooler weather; squash love the heat. Some plants need full sun, some need lots of shade. Understanding what your crops need to thrive and making decisions that reflect that will make your garden more successful.

Point out to your child that she can make choices that can make her happier. “Remember how you told me that you feel happy when you are drawing? Where could you keep drawing supplies so you could draw whenever you wanted to?” “What would make you feel happier today? Going to the library or to the park?”

By encouraging your child to make choices that help her feel happy, you are empowering her to manage her emotions.

Invite the ladybugs

Just as ladybugs eat up insects in a garden that will destroy fruits and veggies, reaching out to people or pets who support and love us is a healthy way to help us feel happy.

Encourage your child to spend time with loving family and friends. “You had fun playing with Tio last week. Would you like to ask if he can meet us at the playground?” Build time into your family’s routine to share relaxing, positive experiences.

Weeding and watering

Even when you choose the right plants and location and bring in the ladybugs, you still need to work in your garden to keep it healthy. You need to use special gardening skills like careful weeding and watering to help your plants grow.

Happiness-supporting skills like self-care and problem-solving will help your child tend her garden. Teach your child from a young age that eating healthy foods, exercising, and getting enough sleep are within her control and are essential to happiness, just like a garden needs water. Encourage her to identify healthy foods and activities she likes and support her efforts to eat and do them.

Solving problems as they arise is a lot like weeding. No garden or day is perfect. Challenges pop up that need to be addressed. Help your child understand she won’t be happy all the time, but that she can take steps to feel better when things go wrong or she feels sad. Talk about disappointments and help her brainstorm ways to improve situations. Let her see you solve situations that challenge, disappoint, or frustrate you, and be sure to talk about your feelings and the process, so she can observe your technique.

Acts of nature

Even the most carefully planned and tended garden is at the whim of the weather. Sometimes things beyond our control can threaten to damage what we’ve worked for, but a well planned and cared for garden can survive or rebound from a drought, big storm or hungry deer.

Help your child weather especially challenging times by acknowledging big changes, upsets and surprises, encouraging her to talk about how she feels, and helping her identify ways to cope with the unexpected. Share with her times you had to cope with a situation beyond your control–like a flight being cancelled or being too sick to go to a party you were looking forward to. Knowing that you employ some of the same strategies that she is learning can encourage her to meet a challenging situation positively.

How does your garden grow?

Happiness is different for every person; we all tend our own gardens. Helping your child identify what makes her happy, make choices that support her happiness and employ happiness-supporting skills will not only help her happiness garden flourish, but will help her become a master gardener.

by Jon Lasser, PhD

This Article's Author

Jon Lasser, PhD, is a psychologist, school psychologist, professor, and program director of the school psychology program at Texas State University. At Texas State, he has developed and taught graduate courses for the school psychology program and has also taught the freshman first-year experience course. Jon holds a bachelor’s degree in Plan II liberal arts from the University of Texas at Austin, a master’s degree in human sexuality education from the University of Pennsylvania, and a doctorate in school psychology from the University of Texas at Austin.

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