Authentic Happiness and Raising Children

I finished reading Martin E. P. Seligman‘s Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment a few days ago and have written about positive psychology, the main concepts of this book, and how authentic happiness and positive psychology can help you have a better marriage.

But I also want to share with you Seligman‘s advice on raising kids. I don’t have any myself but hope to one day. And I want to remember these ideas when I do.

Seligman believes that a parent’s primary jobs are to help his/her children build their strengths and to increase position emotion because:

  • Positive emotion broadens and builds the intellectual, social and physical resources that your children draw upon later in life.
  • Augmenting positive emotions in your children can start an upward spiral of positive emotion.
  • The positive traits that your child displays are just as real and authentic as his or her negative ones.

Additionally, secure attachment will allow your child to begin exploring and gaining mastery more quickly.

Here are Seligman‘s eight techniques for building positive emotion:

1. Sleeping with Your Baby. For at least the first three months of your child’s life, have your baby sleep in your bed with you and your spouse. Seligman gives three reasons for this:

  • Amai – “When the baby always wakes up to find her parents right next to her, fear of abandonment wanes and a sense of security grows…the parents interact with the baby as she goes to sleep, in the middle of the night should she awaken, and in the morning when she wakes up. Further, when the baby finds that she does not have to cry at length to get fed in the middle of the night, endless bouts of crying are not reinforced. All of this feeds into the Japanese idea of amai, the sense of being cherished and the expectation of being loved that children raised correctly attain.”
  • Safety – If your baby is right next to you when a farfetched event occurs (sudden illness, fire, flood, intruders, etc) you will be more likely to be able to save his life.
  • Adventures with Daddy – Moms do most of the child-rearing in our culture and sleeping with your baby makes it easier for the Dad to forge a bond with your infant.

2. Synchrony Games. Help your child learn that “her actions influence the actions of the people she loves – that she matters.” Choose toys that respond to what the baby does. Some cheap options Seligman mentions:

  • stackable blocks (you stack, infant knocks them over; as he/she gets older, he/she can stack them on his/her own)
  • books and magazines (let your baby tear up old magazines and catalogs)
  • cardboard boxes (cut some holes in them and let your child play away)

3. No and Yes. Limit “No’s” and use other words when possible. This does not mean to say yes to everything. This means to say “Gentle” or “Quiet down” or “Let’s add this toy to your birthday wish list when we get home.”

4. Praise and Punishment. This does not mean to praise your child regardless of what he/she does. “Love, affection, warmth, and ebullience should all be delivered unconditionally. The more of these, the more positive the atmosphere, and the more secure your child will be. The more secure he is, the more he will explore and find mastery. But praise is an altogether different matter. Praise your child contingent on success, not just to make him feel better, and grade your praise to fit the accomplishment. Wait until he actually fits the little peg man into the car before applauding, and do not treat the achievement as if it were amazing. Save your expressions of highest praise for more major accomplishments, like saying his sister’s name or catching a ball for the first time.” Try to avoid punishing your child if there is an effective alternative. When you are punishing your child though, “make sure he knows exactly what action he is being punished for. Do not indict the child or his character; indict the specific action only.”

5. Sibling Rivalry. Be aware of sibling rivalry and create chores to help each sibling feel special and secure.

6. Bedtime Nuggets. Seligman says “those three minutes right before your child falls asleep can be the most precious of the day.” He recommends spending fifteen minutes before bed doing these two activities

  • Best Moments – help your children have twice as many good thoughts as bad thoughts per day (“a positive state-of mind ratio”) since two University of Pittsburgh psychologists have found that happier people have a 2:1 positive state-of mind ratio (depressed people have a 1:1 ratio). Do this by asking your child what he/she liked doing today. Keep asking him/her to tell you more good things/happy thoughts until you’ve gotten five or more out of him/her. As your kids get older (five or older), also ask them what they are looking forward to tomorrow. This builds the strength of future-mindedness.
  • Dreamland – Ask your child to think of a really happy picture in their heads, describe it, concentrate on it, and give it a name in words. Tell your kid, “As you drift into sleep now, I want you to do three things. First, keep the picture in your head; second, say the name over and over as you fall asleep; and third, intend to have a dream about it.” Seligman says this will increase the likelihood that your child will have a relevant happy dream. This is important since research shows that depressed people have dreams filled with losing, defeat and rejection.

7. Making a Deal. As a last resort, only after nothing else works to get a child to behave, “make a deal” with your child; offer to give him a prize (often a new toy) if he starts doing a specific “good” behavior or stops doing a specific “bad” behavior but that if he breaks his promise he will lose the new prize/toy for one week and if he breaks his promise twice he will lose the prize/toy forever. “Making a deal with a four-year-old implies some significant assumptions: that parents can contract with a child so young, that a reward can precede rather than follow the behavior to be strengthened, and that your child expects that if he misbehaves he will both break his promise and lose his new-found prize. In short, it assumes that your child is future-minded.”

8. New Year’s Resolutions. Make new year’s resolutions with your children and even hold a midsummer review to check on how you’ve done. Make sure the resolutions include correcting shortcomings AND positive accomplishments that build on strengths.

Seligman‘s final childrearing advice is to help your child to display his/her burgeoning signature strengths in the course of your normal daily activities and when they are displayed, acknowledge them with a name.

And lastly one disclaimer, Seligman home-schools his kids. Of this he says,

Because we are home-schoolers, we can tailor our curriculum to the signature strengths of each child. I hasten to add that we are not proselytizing home-schoolers; I ork with many public and private schools and have enormous respect for how well teachers do. We home-school because (a) we travel a great deal and can build our kids’ education around our travels, (b) we are both dedicated teachers, and (c) we did not want to turn over to strangers the joys of watching our children grow.That said, I want to illustrate designing family activities to use each of your child’s signature strengths with one course from this year’s curriculum.

Mandy decided that she would teach geology this year. All of the children like rocks, and geology is an excellent route into chemistry, paleontology, and economics. Each child has a special slant on minerals and a special assignment catering to their specific strengths. Nikki, with her social intelligence and love of beauty, is doing gems and jewelry. Her special topic is how minerals have created beauty in costumes and in social life. Lara, with her strength of fairness, wants to study oil monopolies, including John D. Rockefeller, and his turn toward philanthropy. Darryl has already started his rock collection, and has prevailed on our plumber (Steve Warnek, who is also a mineralogist by avocation) to take him on field trips. He has collected a huge number of specimens, and his persistence and industry loom large on these trips.

Will write about what Authentic Happiness has to say about finding meaning and purpose in life later today or tomorrow.


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