Sociologist Christine Carter is—professionally as well as personally—an expert on finding happiness in the busy swirl of everyday life. She’s a senior fellow at UC-Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, a popular speaker, and the author of The Sweet Spot: How to Find Your Groove at Home and Work and Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents.
Oh, and her blended family (shown above) includes four teenagers, ages 14, 15, 16, and 17.
We asked Carter about creating a family life filled with happiness—and less stress:
Something surprising that kids learn from us about stress: They learn what to be stressed about. Stress is all in our minds. It’s caused by a belief that something is a threat, not a fact that something is hurting us.
My secret to less stressful mornings: Making everything routine, happening on autopilot, automatically—so it doesn’t use up precious willpower.
Kids are much happier when: We’re happy ourselves.
Three things I really wish all parents knew:
1) Their own happiness and fulfillment is the most important thing—meaning their self-care is essential, not selfish.
2) Their relationships are also really important for their children’s long-term happiness. This means that time with friends and extended family are important.
3) Their kids’ capacity for happiness will be largely determined by whether they have what it takes to GIVE to others, not whether they get what they want.
One thing parents worry about—but shouldn’t: Where their kids go to college. The important thing is that they go to college, how well prepared they are for college (academically, socially, AND emotionally), and how well they thrive when they’re there.
One thing parents don’t worry about—but should: How much sleep their kids are getting and the quality of that sleep. Most kids and a majority of teens aren’t getting nearly enough.
My take on extracurriculars: One size doesn’t fit all. Some kids need a lot of structured activity to keep them out of trouble and off their devices. Other kids need a ton of unstructured free time. All kids need some playtime, some downtime, and some family time every single day.
My take on chores: Kids need to do chores and contribute in meaningful ways to their household, or they become brats who feel entitled to service. Also, I don’t think chores and regular household responsibilities should be tied to allowance. I know this is controversial; most parents want kids to understand that in the real world, they only get paid when they work. But in households, this just isn’t true: Parents don’t get paid for the household chores they do. Families are built on mutual obligations—the ways that we help and nurture one another—not paid work.
My take on screen time: Kids need a lot of help managing screen time—they will not be able to resist on their own. It’s parents’ responsibility to regulate kids’ screen time consistently and predictably, and it is parents’ fault if their kids become addicted.
A family ritual worth starting: Spend 10-20 minutes every day alone with each kid doing something that you both enjoy (but that they pick), like reading together, playing a game, or going for a walk.
An influence on my parenting that might surprise people: I’ve been very influenced by neuroscience and all the social sciences, and by Buddhism and other spiritual practices. But that won’t surprise people who know me.
If I had to do it all over again: I’d have more kids. I have four now, but two are step-children I didn’t know until they were 6 and 8. I love having a big family. I love having teenagers, but I can feel them leaving the nest and wish that I still had more time with “the littles,” as we used to call them.
Something kids always ask me that would surprise their parents: Can you tell my mom to take my phone away more? And will you tell her to get off her phone during dinner? I’d like to sometimes have weekends without being connected.
Something parents always ask me (and what I tell them): Everywhere I go, people ask me this one question: “If you had to pick just one thing that could make me happier right now, what would it be?”
I’m always tempted to make jokes about sex and yoga—or maybe a glass of wine. But glib responses aside, I believe an authentic moment of gratitude is the simplest way to boost our happiness—especially when we’re feeling stressed or wishing for more of something…like more time or more money.
My definition of a great kid: A kid who’s “all in”—passionate and engaged in an unselfconscious way.
My motto as a mom: One thing at a time.
Photo: Christine Carter family