We asked Katie Hurley, a child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World, to talk about—what else?—family happiness. Also a mom of two (ages 7 and 9) in Los Angeles, she shared her favorite tools for creating a family life that’s filled with less stress, more love and fun:
A skill every preschooler should have that’s seldom taught: How to verbalize a range of emotions! So many tantrums stem from lack of adequate communication skills. It’s natural for kids to experience frustration and other negative emotions throughout the day. That’s part of growing up. When they don’t know how to express those emotions, however, they build up until they explode. Teaching kids to verbalize and cope with their emotions early on helps them work through all kinds of obstacles as they grow.
A skill every school-age kid should have that’s seldom taught: Empathy. We live in a highly competitive society right now. Kids are taught to compete and win before they even enter preschool. While I love the spirit of healthy competition for school-age children, I don’t love the decline in empathy that currently exists. Some kids are naturally more empathic than others at a young age, but all kids can and should learn to empathize with others.Something kids always ask me that would surprise their parents: Will my parents still love me if I don’t do the things they want me to do? (They’re often referring to sports and other enrichment programs.)
A question parents always ask me: How can I increase my child’s motivation? The truth is, you can’t. Bribes and rewards are Band-Aids, at best. Intrinsic motivation comes from within. A huge problem right now is that kids are over-scheduled, stressed out, and feeling like they have no time to simply be kids. Kids find their own motivation when they’re given the gift of time. It really helps to stop trying to do everything and simply let children do childhood. Time changes everything.
Family ritual we love: We love to take night walks together, especially in the summer. When the kids were toddlers, we did “pajama walks” after breakfast each morning. Now we love to go out after dinner and get some early evening air on our faces before bedtime. It gives us a chance to slow down, hold hands, and chat while we appreciate our surroundings. Sometimes we find so many treasures along the way that we only make it a few blocks. Other nights we walk through the park near our home. It’s a great way to ease into bedtime, especially on a Sunday night.
Surefire birthday celebration idea: We keep birthdays simple. Close friends and cupcakes always win. When my kids were toddlers I got caught up in creating perfect parties for a moment, but my son taught me that smaller is better and nothing beats vanilla/vanilla cupcakes made by mom.
A great party favor: Books! One year I wrapped up paperback picture books, and the kids loved them!
My kids’ favorite bedtime books right now: My daughter has Harry Potter fever. I truly enjoy reliving the magic through her eyes. My son is only 7, but he’s an avid reader, so we burn through a lot of Matt Christopher books (he writes sports fiction for kids) and Percy Jackson.
My 3 favorite children’s books: I find it nearly impossible to choose favorites. But here are three to read over and over again…even when the kids are into chapter books:
- One by Kathryn Otoshi
- Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud
- The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds (and really every single book he’s written)
Secret to less stressful mornings: My kids are early birds, so we always have plenty of time in the morning. One thing that helps is setting timers for them so they know when to transition from playing to getting dressed and brushing teeth. We always pack backpacks the night before and as much of the lunch as possible. I learned long ago to keep a sock bin and shoe bin for each kid by the front door so we never have to spend time running around in search of shoes and socks!
Truly the best trick for stress-free mornings is a solid bedtime routine. Get the kids to bed early. School age kids need 10-11 hours of sleep each night while preschoolers and toddlers need 12-14 hours with naps. Plenty of sleep means happier mornings for kids and parents.
Favorite family movie at our house: We can’t get enough of Finding Nemo. Some movies were meant to be watched over and over again and that’s one of them.
The best toy: Imagination. Watching my kids play straight from their imaginations is one of my favorite things to do.
Best family dinner conversation starter: Tell me the three best parts of your day.
Favorite quick weeknight dinner: I’m almost embarrassed to admit that my kids basically live on grilled chicken and roasted veggies, but it’s so quick and easy!
The parenting expert who had the greatest influence on me: Michele Borba. I can’t possibly say enough great things about Michele. She’s kind hearted and wise. She’s patient and thoughtful. Her work on empathy and bullying positively impacts children all over the world. She’s the one to reach for when you’re not sure which way to turn.
3 things (large or small) I really wish all parents knew:
Play is essential to kids’ development. It’s as important as love, shelter, food, and water.
Little kids have very big feelings. Yelling, sarcasm, and withholding of love and affection can negatively impact children for years to come. Parenting isn’t easy, but our children need us to remain calm and help them through the hard stuff.
All kids need unconditional love. When kids know that their parents love them no matter their mistakes, they’re more willing to take chances and reach for the high bar. They can tackle any obstacle that appears in their path.
Something parents worry about but shouldn’t: The safety of children when they do things like climb trees or stand on monkey bars. Kids push their own personal boundaries to figure out what they can and can’t do. As parents, we just need to back off and let them fall sometimes. It’s part of the learning process.
Something parents don’t worry about but should: For all the information on the matter, I find that many parents still don’t pay attention to what their kids are doing online. I love technology, and I talk to my kids about things like social media and online etiquette (even though they aren’t even close to social media age). But I know third graders on Instagram and fourth graders using Musical.ly without supervision. Apps can be tricky, and peer pressure is powerful. It’s best to follow the age guidelines and start talking about the emotional side of spending time online early on. Kids need information. Parents need to provide it.
An influence on my parenting that might surprise people: My father died unexpectedly when I was 23 years old. The perpetually empty seat at the table reminds me that life is short, and the frustrating moments are almost never worth it. I also lost four babies to miscarriage when trying to have a family. I don’t spend my life thinking about the losses I suffered, but the losses did shape my parenting. I don’t engage in the culture of busy and I don’t yell over spilled milk—life is unpredictable and I intend to enjoy the ride as much as possible. Instead of worrying about what others might think, I teach empathy, forgiveness, and compassion in our home. It works for us.
My motto as a mom: When in doubt, hug it out. Life is messy, complicated, and sometimes scary, but holding our loved ones close can get us through even the most overwhelming moments.