In her book, Raising Happiness, Christine Carter gives ten steps to promoting family happiness. However, it’s safe to say that the piece of advice Carter invokes the most often is “practice mindfulness.” Parents who are not paying attention, who don’t have time to be prepared, who are overstressed and overextended will not raise happy kids.
They won’t be all that happy either.
That’s what Step 1 is all about. Happy parents have happy children. And Carter is no dummy. She acknowledges that adult happiness sometimes requires taking time off from the kids. Parents who take care of themselves first are better able to practice the mindfulness techniques that many of Carter’s steps require.
“Mindfulness” means taking a deep breath, being prepared to prevent rather than react to bad behavior, savoring the present moment, and being aware of the little positive moments that every day brings.
Mindful parents encourage their children to be mindful too. Having your child remember three good things that happened each day, or personally deliver thank you notes to favorite teachers can only enrich your time with your kids and point them in a positive direction.
Along with mindfulness, Carter also celebrates the advantages of children who practice hard work, self-control, and failure. Yes, failure—because it is the nemesis of perfectionism (which is not good for happiness).
The final chapter of the book, “Eat Dinner Together,” shows how each one of the previous nine happiness steps can be integrated into a family dinner. This is also the perfect time for the grownup(s) to model social skills, use lots of interesting vocabulary words, and share family chores (even little kids can put down placemats). Carter recognizes the near impossibility of frequent family dinners in today’s world (especially the recommended five per week), but stresses that the advantages far outweigh the schedule hassles.
What are the advantages? Carter bases many of her happiness steps on child development studies, but cites the research mainly to show the concrete benefits of happiness-inducing behaviors. After a while, it starts to feel a little cheap, like “Studies show that kids who do X get higher grades, make more friends, and have whiter teeth.” Does happiness need to be yet another frantically sought advantage that one kid can have over another?
For the cynics among you, Carter’s steps to happiness may sound treacly or obvious. Having a “Happiness Habits” chart that you discuss every night at dinner might be too much for you. And everybody knows you should “accentuate the positive,” right?
Except that we don’t often make those connections in the heat of the parenting moment. What really keeps this book from being treacly and obvious are the glimpses into Carter’s own frenetic household, starring her two young daughters who scream “Why would a mother hurt her child’s body?” when Carter uses the time-honored “grocery store grab” above the elbow. If you’ve ever run up against a child who digs in her heels when you try to assert control, these episodes will be both familiar and amusing. More importantly, Carter’s solutions make sense.
But they require time, deep breaths, and (of course) mindfulness.