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10 Secrets of a Happy Childhood

Every parent wants her child to be happy. But can you teach a child to be sunny as surely as you can teach him to play soccer or speak Spanish? Most scientists believe that the genes your child inherits at birth influence his happiness potential. But that doesn't mean you can't do plenty to make sure he gets the most joy out of life. Here, ten expert secrets to help you raise a child who is as happy as can be.
1. Love the child you have.

Experts agree that the number-one secret to raising a happy child is to celebrate him for who he is. When kids grow up knowing that their individual characteristics, talents, interests and opinions are valued and encouraged, they are " grounded in an inner happiness that becomes the foundation for their whole life," explains Mariaemma Pelullo-Willis, co-author of Discover Your Child's Learning Style (Prima Lifestyles).

2. Turn "No, I Can't" into "Yes, I Can!"

When your child knows you have an unwavering belief in him, he feels he can accomplish anything. "It's the ideas in a child's head, what he says to himself, that matter most," says Mac Bledsoe, author of Parenting with Dignity (Alpha Books). "So it's up to parents to orchestrate a choir of affirmation." When Bledsoe's son, Drew, was in junior high, his coach told the boy that he had no talent for football. "Don't ever allow anyone that much access to your goals and dreams," Bledsoe counseled his crestfallen son. Today Drew plays professional football for the Buffalo Bills.

3. Set fair rules and stick to them.

Young children derive happiness from feeling secure, says Andy Spooner, M.D., director of general pediatrics at the University of Tennessee College of Medicine in Memphis. "Imagine standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon," he says. "You'd enjoy yourself if there were a sturdy guardrail to protect you. If it were missing, you'd feel uneasy." Kids thrive when there are firm boundaries for their behavior.

4. Bring out the bright side.

"Tell your child that there is no problem you can't solve together," says Edward M. Hallowell, M.D., author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness (Ballantine). Also, teach your child to be optimistic. Learning optimism is important because an upbeat child is more likely to become a happy adult. Discontented people fixate on unpleasant events in their life, while joyful people focus on things that brighten their outlook, says David Niven, Ph.D., author of The 100 Simple Secrets of Happy Families (Harper San Francisco).

5. Create a caring team.

Parents may wish to seek teachers, coaches, clergy and others to round out their child's hip-hip-hooray squad, says Dr. Hallowell. Your child's friends are also a big part of this caring network; so welcome them into the fold. Doing so helps your child maintain and nurture the bonds of friendship -- a crucial skill since the ability to forge strong relationships is an important indicator of future happiness, says Liza Bonin, Ph.D., clinical psychologist at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.

6. Get them off the couch.

Today's kids are more overweight than ever, which doesn't bode well for their health or their happiness. Obese children tend to suffer from low self-esteem and are more likely to become depressed, says Alan Greene, M.D., an assistant professor of pediatrics at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. But, when a child eats well and gets physical exercise, his brain releases feel-good chemicals, called endorphins, that contribute to a sense of well-being.

Help up your child's nutritional intake by keeping healthy snacks like fruit on hand, eschewing fast food for healthier home cooking and watching portion sizes. Encourage your kids to head outdoors and have fun. Unstructured, child-directed play helps keep children fit, nurtures creativity, fosters independence and teaches social skills.

7. Bank happiness in a memory box.

Naomi Drew, author of Peaceful Parents, Peaceful Kids (Kensington), suggests fostering gratitude in children by keeping a list of things they are thankful for. Put photos, cards, souvenirs and other artifacts that bring to mind happy thoughts in a special box, then dig inside when your child is ill or simply needs to smile.

8. Find magical moments of connection.

Try to negotiate a more family-friendly work schedule, and review your children's sports and activities to see if they, too, can be trimmed, suggests Betsy Taylor, author of What Kids Really Want That Money Can't Buy (Warner Books). Cultivate interests your family can enjoy together, such as biking or hiking, and include kids in everyday activities, like working around the house and shopping, says Marie Sherlock, author of Living Simply with Children (Three Rivers Press).

9. Give them the bounce-back gene.

A key component of ongoing happiness is the ability to rebound from setbacks. How your child handles life's upsets now may determine how she copes in the future. " Don't try to protect your child from every hurt," says Naomi Drew. " Instead, help her understand what's wrong and how to fix it." If your child is dealing with a major disappointment, help her return to her routine, and encourage her to express her feelings. Be sure to model resilience yourself, whether you're coping with a job loss or a traffic jam.

10. Instill a sense of wonder.

When a child connects with something larger than himself, whether it's spirituality, nature or altruism, it leads to feelings of contentment. "Talk to your child about your own faith and the possibility of experiencing a sense of God or the sacred without having to understand all the details," says Taylor. Walk in the woods, stargaze, observe a worm wiggling in the mud. Nurture a caring spirit by including your child when you volunteer.

Copyright © Meredith Corporation.

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