My big girl starts first grade in just over one week.
That delicious feeling at the start of the summer where you have nothing to do and all the time in the world to do it in?
In its place, we have 7:00 am departures breathing down our necks. Early bedtime, which means an early dinner, which means next to zero fun free time as a family on weeknights. And…HOMEWORK.
To prolong the magic of summer, I took a day off work during our last week with Abby.
But I didn’t want to swing too far in the other direction of overscheduling us, turning me into That Mom.
“Kids, hurry up! We need to have fun NOW!”
How can you have a wonderfully happy day with your kids, instead of wasting the day in your jammies watching The LEGO Movie and belting out Everything Is Awesome…OR scheduling so much fun that you forget to enjoy yourselves?
7 Musts for a Happy Day With Your Kids
I turned to science.
Early in the week, I started my research on the science of raising happy kids and the habits of happy people in general.
These seven steps are scientifically proven to give your kids (and by extension you) an awesome, happy day.
The night before our day together, after 1-year-old Bailey was in bed, Abby and I sat down with the list.
I read out every ingredient in our awesome day recipe, and we brainstormed how to make each one happen.
When we finished, I read through our plan for the day.
Abby grinned. “We should do this every day!”
Which confirmed that the first step is essential.
1. Talk It Up
One surefire way to make your kids happy is to let them have a say in how they’ll be spending their time.
“[Kids] who plan their own time, set weekly goals, and evaluate their own work build up their prefrontal cortex and other parts of the brain that help them exert greater cognitive control over their lives. These so-called executive skills aid children with self-discipline, avoiding distractions, and weighing the pros and cons of their choices.”
But it’s not just the control that will make your kid’s day. The simple act of anticipating something fun will boost their happiness.
“[Social] scientists have been saying for years that we get an extra happiness boost if we consciously delay any type of pleasure – be it booking a trip to Bali months in advance or eating that sliver of chocolate cake tomorrow instead of today. Doing this allows us to build up positive expectations, to relish how enjoyable the experience might be.”
In one study, people who thought about watching their favorite movie – they didn’t actually watch it – raised their endorphin levels by 27 percent.
Try This: Before a special day or just a weekend day – talk through your plan with your child. Give them a chance to pick what they want to do, even if it’s just choosing the order of the errands you have to run. And if you have anything fun on the agenda, talk it up! Point out the specifics you’re looking forward to, and ask your kid what they’re excited about.
2. Hug It Out
In one article, I came across a study where people assigned to give or receive hugs five times a day ended up happier than the non-hugging grumps in the control group.
This tip seemed almost TOO simple. Who needs a reminder to hug their family?
We added “give five hugs” to the plan for our day – easy peasy. First thing in the morning when we read through our plan, we gave each other a great big bear hug.
But by dinnertime, we realized that was the only hug we shared all day. Oops.
So then we had a rapid-fire hugging session that devolved into giggles.
Try This: Make it a goal to give five hugs. And make them good hugs! They should last at least six seconds for all the best hugging benefits.
3. Get It Over With in 7 Minutes
My whole adult life, I’ve never been able to motivate myself to do this particular thing on a regular basis.
Unfortunately, it’s incredibly important for happiness. And I need to break the cycle so my girls don’t have such an aversion to it:
But here’s the good news. All you really need is 7 minutes a day with this scientific workout.
Or if you’d rather do something else, you just need 20 minutes of activity to get the happiness boost.
Try This: Find a fun way to move your bodies, from taking a family walk to throwing in a yoga DVD. (Abby loves Yoga Kids.)
4. Pick 5 Small Acts
Helping others has one of the biggest impacts to your happiness.
Even kids get a boost from giving to others:
“Studies show that even toddlers are happier when giving treats to others than receiving treats. (And they’re happier giving away treats that belong to them than identical treats that don’t!)”
But you don’t have to volunteer 40 hours a week to get a boost from giving. In fact, it may be better to save up all your generous acts for one day a week. In one study, people who performed five giving acts all in a single day increased happiness. People who performed one giving act every day saw no increase in happiness – the giving became routine and meaningless.
Try This: Brainstorm small things you and your child can do for others, and execute on five of them. A few ideas:
- Bake fresh cookies and hand them out to your neighbors.
- Write a thank-you note.
- If your house has a never-ending mountain of laundry like ours does, fold it all and put it away.
- Go through toys and pick some to donate to charity.
- Read a book to a younger sibling.
You can find lots more ideas here: Random Acts of Kindness Summer List for Kids.
Abby’s idea? Buy a bunch of flowers and leave a flower on random car windshields at the grocery store.
5. Try Something New
Learning a new skill or trying something you’ve never done before can be a little stressful in the moment, but it pays off with increased happiness in the long term.
One reason is that a huge variety of positive experiences and memories will crowd out negative emotions.
We decided to make playdough – which we’d never done before. It didn’t quite come together as a full-on playdough (more like damp baking soda), and I hyperventilated as the baby left cute little footprints of pink dough all across the living room rug. Still, we had fun!
6. Chow Down
We’ve all heard it’s a good idea to have dinner as a family, but here’s why it’s important:
“Kids who have dinner with their families do better across pretty much every conceivable metric…[Children] who enjoy family meals have larger vocabularies, better manners, healthier diets, and higher self-esteem. The most comprehensive survey done on this topic…discovered that the amount of time children spent eating meals at home was the single biggest predictor of better academic achievement and fewer behavioral problems. Mealtime was more influential than time spent in school, studying, attending religious services, or playing sports.”
Don’t forget to turn off the television and put away the phones – talk about your day, tell family stories, and listen to your kids.
Try This: Eat dinner as a family. Dinnertime too chaotic at your house? You can turn any mealtime or another part of your day into family time – the important part is to set aside a few minutes every day where you do nothing but focus on each other.
7. Think Back
A gratitude journal.
“In one celebrated example, …college students [were asked] to keep a gratitude journal—over ten weeks, the undergrads listed five things that had happened in the last week which they were thankful for. The results were surprisingly powerful—the students who kept the gratitude journal were 25% happier, were more optimistic about the future, and got sick less often during the controlled trial. They even got more exercise.”
Try This: Every night before bed, have your child write down three good things that happened that day. Or they can dictate while you write for them. You can even get a special gratitude journal, if you’re feeling fancy.
Don’t forget to share three good things from your day, too. Making time in your day to count your blessings is a good habit for adults AND kids.
(If you’re an overachiever type, check out how this dad sends his kids off to school every morning. I might just steal his line.)
How to Find Happiness in the Chaos of Parenting
After my family welcomed our third little one into the mix, we became a family of five with a second-grader, a toddler, and a newborn. Even though I could have used more sleep and way more coffee, we were happy. Then my husband’s paternity leave ended, and I was at home with the kids all day. As time wore on, my patience became razor thin. And one day, I just broke.
The shame burns my cheeks just thinking of that day, even now. But thanks to that experience, I realized I had to make a change. I threw myself into researching how to find happiness in the chaos of parenting. Something beyond “make time for you” and “exercise more.” Because when you’re overwhelmed and at your breaking point, you don’t need the “experts” telling you more stuff to do on top of everything else.
That’s how I discovered the secrets: 10 secrets every parent should know about being happy. After hearing from hundreds of parents in the same boat as me, I knew I needed to share what I discovered. And so I wrote a book: Happy You, Happy Family.
Click here to download a free excerpt and start your journey towards finding more happiness as a parent.
Because the truth is that happiness won’t come from a big promotion at work, or from winning the lottery, or from your kids all learning to put their toys away when they’re done playing. Because eventually, you just get used to all that stuff.
True, lasting happiness comes from a conscious effort by you to put the right habits in place.
For more proven parenting tips, follow my Pinterest board Playful Parenting.
What makes a happy day for you? Share your thoughts in a comment below!