Parenting: Raising a happy baby

October 27, 2010

It's a challenge when you look at that bundle of joy. Your newborn is normal if he or she goes from being a sleeping angel to a screaming terror, then bursts into peals of adorable laughter but devolves into sobs all within a couple of hours and for seemingly no reason.

Aside from creature needs and comforts: a warm bottle, a clean diaper, plenty of sleep and lots of hugs, the emotional happiness of a baby can seem unpredictable. Even experts agree a large part of children's happiness is genetic. So that's beyond your control.

But the part you can control has some interesting challenges. A 75-year-long study by Harvard researcher George Vaillant shows the only consistent thing you need for happiness is friendship. More than money, more than jobs, more than education, more than hobbies. And by the time your child hits middle age, friendships are the ONLY predictor of happiness. Vaillant says, "The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people."

Researcher Jonathan Haidt put it another way: "Human beings are in some ways like bees. We have evolved to live in intensely social groups, and we don't do as well when freed from hives."

And the closer the relationship the better. A romantic relationship or marriage usually means you're in the top 10-percent of happy people. 40-percent of married adults describe themselves as "very happy;" only 23-percent of singles do.

Other things that keep people happy are:

    1. Doing good deeds
    2. Making regular lists of things they're grateful for
    3. Cultivating an "attitude of gratitude" which itself generates good feelings
    4. Sharing novel experiences with a loved one
    5. Having a ready "forgiveness reflex" when a loved one hurts your feelings.
So it stands to reason that teaching your children to make friends, forgive their friends, be loyal to their friends, do charitable acts and think "happy" thoughts will go a long way to making them happy in life.

Besides trying to create happy experiences for your little one, trying to decode their needs and wants is not easy.

John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Baby: How to raise a smart and happy child from zero to five, describes why your new baby cries all the time. Mostly it's for survival needs until age 6 months old.

After 6 months old, your child can now experience surprise, disgust, happiness, sadness, anger and fear. But babies don't have many filters to help them decode all their newfound emotions. So crying remains the most effective way to get their parent to put the spotlight on them and help them figure it out. And since their verbal communication system won't be connected for a long time, it's important that you try to differentiate between their types of cries.

Later they'll be able to tell you their needs, if you have encouraged openness and emotional awareness.

So how do you help your child create these all-important friendships? First, teach them to have empathy…learning to peer inside the psychological interiors of other people and accurately comprehend that person's emotional make-up. Once they do that, the key is to respond to the other person's needs with kindness and understanding.

Being empathetic yourself is hugely important, since doing something is a far stronger signal than just saying it. So if you're empathetic with your children, your spouse, your siblings, your friends, they'll learn that emotional softness and response system from you. But again, much of empathy is genetic…which explains why one child in the same family is more empathetic than another.

Medina says your child is also predisposed to be calm or edgy…and believe it or not, 20-percent of babies are highly reactive to new stimuli, meaning overly sensitive.

It's not news to veteran parents that babies are born with personalities. That means having a fussy baby is not your fault, nor can you change that trait. You can only hope to teach your child strategies to channel those worries, fears and reactions. But sadly it is also possible to take a calm baby and make them stressed out, which of course, you don't want to do as we discussed in earlier blogs.

Finally, scientists have discovered 3 genes that show how resilient human beings are even in the face of challenging circumstances. One lessens the pain of trauma, a variant of a gene called MAOA; one guards against insecurity, a gene called DRD4 - if your child has this gene they never develop insecurity and can withstand insensitivity 6 times better than other kids; the third is a stress-resistor called Long 5-HTT, having the short form of this can make you have dramatic overreactions to negative circumstances and can lead to depression.

But just because you do or don't have these chromosomes, doesn't mean your child's happiness is a lost cause. The genetics lead to tendencies, not to a fait accompli. And a nurturing environment can mitigate many problems. We'll talk more about that next week.

Good luck!

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