If you ask young parents how to best raise children, they’ll give a variety of answers. But ask them what they ultimately want for their children, and the answer is always the same. Parents want their kids to be happy in life.
“Raising children to be happy later in life is not about the luck of the draw,” says Rabbi Roger E. Herst, who regularly engages with parents on the subject. “Happy adults are people who make good decisions. Therefore, if you want your kids to be happy, encourage them to improve their decision-making so they can develop into happy people.”
Herst, author of “A Simple Formula for Raising Happy Children,” offers tangible steps parents can take on the matter.
1. Never make a decision children can make themselves. If parents want children to make good decisions that yield success and happiness as an adult, they must let them practice trial and error. Unilateral decisions made by parents obstruct the decision-results perspective for kids, who need practice. Don’t worry about sheltering them from failure, which work best as lessons when a child is able to own their decisions.
2. Lead and show by example; kids imitate more than they listen. For young parents with very small children, it may not have dawned on them that the “Do as I say, not as I do” idiom doesn’t work for child rearing. “Eat your vegetables because they’re good for you” doesn’t work alone. However, a father who participates in vegetable eating, and shows approval when a child eats them, will see more veggie consumption.
3. Ask your children for their advice. This is an exercise to encourage independent thought. Asking children for their advice lets them know you care about and respect their perspective, which tells them that their voice matters. It also lets them know they are responsible for their opinions, which have impact on the real world, and not just in their minds.
4. Practice negotiation. A child often doesn’t play by the rules of gentlemanly negotiation, which feature an adversarial element. The younger they are, the less they think that their parent’s interests are the same as the child’s interest. Start by offering an alternative to their wish if you’d prefer an alternative to their request. If they don’t like your suggestion, ask questions to yield a sensible middle ground. Good parents are not tyrants.
“I recommend encouraging a child’s decision-making as their personalities start to emerge – perhaps in the first year of life,” Herst says.
Roger E. Herst, author of “A Simple Formula for Raising Happy Children” (rogerherst.com), is an ordained Reform rabbi with MBA and doctorate degrees. A father and grandfather, Herst regularly engages with parents in the form of Platonic dialogue – a cooperative Q-&-A approach meant to stimulate critical thinking – to yield logic-based solutions for raising happy children.