In the longest study ever on human development, Harvard University followed the lives of over 700 people from age 19 into old age (the study still continues to this day, with some participants in their 90’s). What they discovered was that the most important factor in life for both happiness and physical well-being was relationships. They found that social connections are good for us and loneliness literally kills. It is not about the number of friends, but the quality of those relationships and whether these are people that you can count on in times of need.
Here are 10 things that you can focus on to help your children to develop these kinds of relationships that will protect their health, brains and happiness…
- Have good friends and relationships yourself. Model for your children what a good relationship looks like, how to resolve conflict, and how to help a friend in need.
- Chat about your own childhood friendships with your kids. Children love stories about us when we were their age, and our experiences can help them to navigate difficult times in their own relationships.
- Model vulnerability for your children. Good relationships always have an element of vulnerability – the more we can be ourselves with all our flaws and troubles the more deeply we connect with the people in our lives. Let your guard down! Let your children see you being weak and imperfect.
- Put time into your own relationships and make time for your children to connect with the people important to them. In other words, slow down. Your job, money, success, fame, achievements… these are not going to bring you long term happiness. Connecting with people will. Make it a priority.
- Let your children get involved with activities that meet their interests and where they can meet like-minded people. At school we are often forced together with a random group that we may or may not get along with. Let your children have interests outside of school that are self-chosen, fun and where they can engage with their true peer-group (regardless of age).
- Confidence is important for good friendships. If we feel insecure we are more likely to put other people down to make ourselves feel good. Confidence can be nurtured in children by allowing them to do things for themselves, by using description rather than praise, by acknowledging the unique traits and contributions of each child, and by treating children with respect.
- Get children involved with the daily business of running a home. Don’t pay your children to cooperate at home – help them to understand that we all contribute and do our bit because we care about each other and the smooth flow of life at home. This is an important part of understanding that relationships are built on mutual support.
- Allow and discuss emotions with your children. Numerous studies have shown that emotional conversations and authoritative parenting lead to prosocial behavior in children.
- Make sure that you are responding to your child’s needs, and that their needs are fulfilled. We all have psychological needs for certainty, variety, significance, love and connection, growth and contribution. If our needs are fulfilled we feel secure and are able to reach out and help others to fulfill their needs too.
- Allow lots of time for free play with peers, and let children work out their own social issues. Children learn how to interact and solve conflicts by actually doing just that. The best place for experimenting with these behaviours is during free, non-adult-directed play. Let the homework slide a bit, cut back on those extra lessons, and let your children do what is really important – connecting!
All of us want what is best for our children, and too often we focus on academics and finances and fame as measures of a successful life. What the Harvard study tells us is that for our children to have a good life, a happy life, a long life… what we need to do is to allow them more time to connect, to play, and to develop meaningful friendships and closer family relationships.
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