Top 10 Ways to a Happy Childhood

five clan

I had what I consider a happy childhood, but when I lay out the facts, it looks miserable: I was the oldest of five and my father was an alcoholic. We had very little money and I was expected to pay for everything discretionary–from a bicycle to a prom dress—myself. We uprooted and moved constantly to the tune of 7 different schools in 3 different states. I never had my own bedroom and I slept in a crowded space, often in a crowded bed, with my sisters.

And yet I was happy. I thrived. I loved my parents, I rarely felt deprived, and I did not feel shoehorned into a tiny life with my outsized expectations. Instead I felt anything was possible, and that I was responsible for making those possibilities real, not my parents or a coach or a rich uncle. Me. My brothers and sisters felt the same way, and when asked we universally answer: we had a happy childhood.

How did that happen? How did we transcend the bleak facts of our lives and come out the other side feeling that the world was more pearl than oyster?

I’ve thought a great deal about this as we raised our own four children in much better circumstances. What are the elements of a happy childhood? Here is what I came up with, and I believe they are universal to children everywhere who are not living in a war zone (literally and figuratively), or in abject poverty.

Benign neglect. My parents did not hover, protect or even knew where we were all the time. We were free to make choices that led to risk and scrapes. We had to be accountable for those choices and figure out an answer before Mom or Dad discovered it and we would be in real trouble. Benign neglect gave us a sense of power and control over our lives that served us into adulthood. Here’s more on the subject: the Atlantic Monthly published a fascinating cover story called The Over-Protected Kid all parents should read.scotland

Calculated risks. We were free to get lost finding short cuts home, climb trees we fell from, navigate muddy creeks, streets, and bullies we had rock wars with. We were rarely warned of the perils outside our door, and our parents did not exaggerate dangers. We grew to believe, and our experiences confirmed, that the world was a safe place to navigate.

Time. The two biggest time-stealers for kids are structured activities and screen time. I grew up in an era where participating in sports meant a neighborhood pick up game, not a structured quest for excellence with daily practices and games on Saturdays. We could fool around with paints and not become artists, or play the piano without instruction. We learned to swim in the shallow end without lessons. In short, we fooled around with our interests, that may or not have developed into passions, with the luxury of time.

images Love. My parents loved the child I was, not the child they wanted. We had little money, but it is the old cliché that we were rich in love, and that is what filled the cracks and gaps. I was good enough.

Firmness and Consistency. Like the master of exuberant puppies, my parents were firm and consistent with their rules and expectations. They were unwavering with the family tenets of manners, courtesy, kindness, and respect for their decisions, even when it ran counter to ours. I was taught to say yes ma’am and no sir. I would never think of outright disobedience, or I would get into trouble with terrible consequences.

Listen. We were listened to. Mom would make eye contact, bend her ear, and take our thoughts seriously. Whether it was the sorrow of being the new girl left out of the all-class birthday party, or the excitement of a crush, she was genuinely interested in what I had to say.

Outdoors. We spent huge chunks of our lives outside, where you could not be too loud, break things, or make a wrong move. The outdoors is one big forgiving arena of play that makes all human beings feel better, where the best childhood memories unfold. My mother would shoo us out the back door in the summer and lock it behind her.danno

Accountability. We were made accountable for our actions. We were asked: What went wrong? What was your role? How do YOU (not we) fix it? Two marvelous things happened in that process—we grew resilient with problem solving, and we rarely felt like victims, because if you understand your role in a conflict or issue, you have the power to change it next time.

Sleep. We got 9-10 hours of sleep a night. We were put into our room and expected to stay in our beds in the dark–without reading or games or conversation with a giggling sister—until morning. My parents were invariably firm and consistent about this. Sleep is restorative and makes more patient, alert human beings. They were the boss of our sleep, even with our bouts of insomnia. Go to bed, close your eyes, have sweet dreams with sugarplums. And we did. Most of the time.

images-1Family dinners. We ate together nearly every night. This is before the age of numerous after-school activities, and car pooling to and from one place to another. We held hands and said a blessing, talked about our day, bickered, ate too fast, and did the dishes. It was a time of reconnection, even if Dad had been drinking and Mom was exhausted from unpacking boxes from yet another move, we sat around the table and broke bread together. And isn’t that what families are for?

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