Parents consciously and indirectly devote much of their time, effort and money to trying to make their children happy. When the focus is primarily on providing a big house, elaborate vacations, toys or technological gadgets, however, those efforts often miss the mark.

Regardless of age or personality, there are some key elements for helping children find happiness. These elements can generally be divided into structure or support. Structural elements are things that help children feel secure and stable. Examples include providing consistent rules and boundaries and establishing routines. Support elements provide an emotional foundation and help children feel safe.

Here are some examples:

Eat real meals at regular times

Children like schedules. They like to be able to look at a clock and know that lunch is at 12:30 and dinner is at 6. More than that, they like to share those mealtimes with a parent. There are numerous scientific research studies about the benefits of family meals including things like lower rates of drug use and lower rates of teen pregnancy. Other studies show significant health benefits for children who eat home-cooked meals on a regular basis.

Have set bed times

Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting expert wrote: "Kids need to learn how to sleep. It's up to us to teach them. When they are completely exhausted, they are cranky. When they are well-rested and ready to embrace the day, they are happier." Bed times must be consistent. When parents give in to begging and allow children to stay up late, the message kids get is that they can get their way if they beg or cry with sufficient determination.

Schedule spontaneous play

Again, there are many studies touting the benefits of unstructured play on the development of young children. In an overscheduled world, it can be difficult to find time for child's play. A study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children without unstructured play time experienced higher levels of stress.

One solution is to schedule blocks of open time without homework, music lessons, sports practices, etc. Instead of letting children fill those blocks with television or computer games, send them outdoors to build a fort, catch bugs or just to play kids' games. Children who have not had much experience with unstructured play might need some guidance from an older sibling, cousin, friend or even a parent.

Be together

A 2007 study by The Associated Press and MTV asked teens and young adults what made them happy. The top answer was spending time with family. Three-fourths of the respondents in the same survey said they like to spend time with their parents. Young children like family activities even more than older children do. Activities with extended family and family traditions create connections and bonds that can help children develop confidence and feel secure.

Don't hover

Sometimes there can be a fine line between spending quality time with children and too much smothering. The term "helicopter parenting" refers to parents who become over involved in their children's lives and activities. According to, "Helicopter parenting can be revealed through a parent ensuring a child has a certain teacher or coach, selecting the child's friends and activities, or providing disproportionate assistance for homework and school projects." Children need to experience both success and failure for proper emotional development. They also need to know their parents trust them enough to do things on their own.

Be an example

Happy children come from families with happy parents. Parents can teach their children to be grateful and humble by exhibiting those traits themselves. Conversely, when parents are critical or depressed they often pass those attributes on to their children.

It seems most of us seek happiness in our lives. That pursuit starts in childhood and can be nurtured by providing meaningful opportunities that encourage happiness. What does it mean to be happy? That is for each of you to decide.

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