From the moment I saw my daughter’s eyes as she was being born, I’ve only had one dream for her, that she’d be a happy child. Other parents may dream of fame, fortune, or accomplishment. All I’ve ever wanted for my beautiful little girl was for her to be happy. I dream of her skating through life, sidestepping life’s misfortunes, or even stepping over the potholes and pitfalls that dog our steps. Maybe my wife feels differently, but that is enough for me. She has a questioning, curious spirit – I knew that as our eyes locked when she was 5 minutes old, but would that questioning character lead her to peace or restlessness?
My naive vision of mommy and daddy’s arms forever went by the wayside when she entered daycare at 5 weeks, a reality of a world in which two parents work. But I was determined that she grow up a happy child. My research and practice, with a generous helping of real life experience as a daddy led me to these five rules.
1. Lots and lots of positive stimulation. Fill the baby’s early life with song, color, motion, touch, and cool things to do. Many of the newer cause and effect electronic toys actually seem to provide less stimulation than simpler ones. Sophia adored anything that lit up for her. Music coming from the toy did not seem to make a difference, but she adored music, whether daddy and his guitar, singing, or recorded music. Get your face nice and close to the baby; human touch and voice is better than anything else.
2. Teach the child to praise himself. When he does something good, say “good boy.” That will over time turn into the child praising himself and becoming his own biggest fan. We said “good girl” to our daughter at many different times, and by 13 months, she was saying “good girl” to herself when she did something nice. It was probably one of the first 20 words she said.
3. Develop an appreciation of living things. This was easy for us, as we had a dog and three cats. She dog and cats became her best buddies, and helped keep her occupied and feeling love when mommy and daddy were busy. I taught this early, by carrying her around and when there was not something else to do, saying, “Hey, let’s see if we can find the doggie. I wonder what the cats are up to?” When she began to crawl and then walk, she would go on missions to find her friends. Sure, those things are easy if you have those animals. But we also had a fish tank and a house full of plants. When she was only two months old, she was experienced at helping daddy feed the fishies and water plants. Those things took almost no time or space, and helped her to understand that she takes care of things as well.
4. Almost no “nos” in the first year of life. Almost constant encouragement will lead a child to explore and enjoy their world. In the few instances in which a no is necessary, present the no in a clam and firm voice, and immediately enforce it. During the enforcement, present the next idea to occupy the child’s mind. “No Jade – don’t eat the stick,” and then I immediately picked her up and cheerfully pointed at an airplane in the sky. “Wow – look!”
5. If you need to find child care, as we did, in addition to looking for a place that provides a healthy environment, also look for a place that seems happy and welcoming. If the first contact you have with the child care provider does not make you feel welcome, then how can you trust that your child will be welcomed? How are you greeted with your first contact? Do the child care professionals seem happy as well as the children seeming happy?
We as adults can choose the people whom we spend time around. We do not have to be around people who bring us down or make us unhappy. Our children, however, can not simply vote with their feet the way we can. It is our responsibility to make sure that our children are in happy places where they will be encouraged to be positive. That starts with us.
Dan Baker, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
Elizabeth M. Boggs Center on Developmental Disabilities
Robert Wood Johnson Medical School,
Department of Pediatrics