by Christine Carter, Greater Good Science Center

These are not the only—or even the most important—things we can do to promote happiness in our children , but they are things that might not be obvious to parents.

1. Teach gratitude.

In my opinion, one of the most important happiness habits in the history of the universe is GRATITUDE. Thankfulness is actually a skill we need to teach our kids to practice regularly (rather than something we should assume they’ll feel innately). Keep lists of things you and your kids are grateful for. Anything can go on the list, no matter how large or small—people, places, toys, events, nature. People who consciously practice gratitude like this are dramatically happier—as well as more energetic, determined, and kind.

2. Don’t be such a perfectionist.

I can tell you both from science and from experience that perfectionism is the bane of happiness. Perfectionists are more likely to suffer from depression and severe anxiety, and they are more likely to commit suicide when things go really wrong. We don’t want our kids to become them.

Kids today, especially upper-middle class kids, are under a lot of pressure to achieve. Parents who value their children’s achievements more than their character tend to create perfectionists.

Instead of always pushing for the next big win, we can help our kids see that mistakes, failures, and jobs left undone are often fertile ground for growth and learning. If you find yourself doing everything within your power to prevent your children’s failures—bringing forgotten homework to school, staying up late to “help” rewrite a paper, manipulating the system to your child’s advantage—take a step back and ponder whether you really want to prevent your children from learning to deal with challenges and mistakes themselves.

3. Improve your love life.

Phil and Carolyn Cowan, pioneering psychologists who’ve been studying marriage and parenting for decades, always tell me that it isn’t the status of a relationship—whether or not you are together or separated—but the quality that matters for children’s health and happiness. Unfortunately, 67% of couples have a big drop in relationship happiness and a “big increase in hostility,” after kids arrive. Not surprisingly, parental conflict isn’t good for children’s happiness.

There are two important things that co-parents (whether or not they are married) can do to improve their relationship for the benefit of their children: (1) learn to handle conflict in a positive manner, and (2) become better friends. This may mean that you need to spend more time with your co-parent and less time with your kids…something that many parents are loath to do when time with their children is already scarce. But here’s another insight from the Cowans’ research: if you improve your parenting, you won’t necessarily improve your marriage or your relationship with your kids’ other parent. On the other hand, if you improve your relationship, you WILL improve your parenting.

© Christine Carter 2008

Christine Carter, Ph.D. is the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley and a sociologist who studies the childhood roots of happiness. The Greater Good Science Center is an interdisciplinary research center that promotes the study of happiness, compassion, and strong families. Dedicated to “translating” the science of a meaningful life into practical tips for the general public, Carter writes the blog Half Full: Science for Raising Happy Kids, which offers parents research-based tips for fostering well-being in children.