What makes your life richer and what doesn’t?

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Children thrive when you give them half as many presents and twice as much of your presence.
Children thrive when you give them half as many presents and twice as much of your presence.

Among the to-do lists, earning a living and keeping everyone fed and happy, it’s easy to lose sight of what is meaningful to you.

What makes your life richer, and what doesn't?

Of course, it varies from person to person and family to family, but most of us would agree it has social, emotional and "spiritual" (although not necessarily religious) elements.

A rich life is varied, interesting and creative. It encompasses a sense of fun and celebration.

We would hope for good health and a sense of purpose, of making a difference. When we live more consciously, our children benefit, because we show them what a fulfilling life looks like.

The old saying "children don't necessarily do what you say, but they will do what you do" is resoundingly true.

The connection makes us happy

An 80-year-long Harvard study – the longest and most comprehensive study of human well-being ever undertaken – reached a simple conclusion: "Good relationships keep us healthier and happier."

A sense of belonging, of feeling understood, affirmed and appreciated in a family and a community, brings a contentment that no material possession can.

Nurturing your primary relationships – with your partner, your children, your extended family and close friends – as well as your connections with your wider community, will go a long way to creating a rich and happy life.

For new parents, especially first-timers, parenthood can be a lonely space. The responsibility, the uncertainty and the relentless caregiving can feel overwhelming, particularly if you lack support and company.

A community of like-minded parents can be a life-saver. It's hard to reach out, but don't be shy – in all likelihood, they are in the same boat and will be delighted at the approach. Everyone wins, the babies too.

When children see you tend lovingly to your relationships, your children learn the importance of building and cherishing relationships.

The social and emotional skills you're modelling – empathy, kindness, generosity, being able to apologise, to give a compliment – will stand them in very good stead for a happy, connected life.

Read: OPINION: Spend less time and money in malls, and more time with family this year 

Relish your rituals

When we think back on our childhoods, the memories that are most powerful and meaningful are often the rituals that were special to our families, that brought us together and "made us, us".

Rituals bring depth and connection to family life, and children love them.

When it comes to introducing children to family rituals, take time to explain where the meaning lies.

Birthdays aren't just about cake and presents; we are celebrating the life of someone we love and being grateful for their presence.

Psychologist Ruth Ancer advocates small daily rituals that create space for connection and practises this in her parenting.

"When you lie with your child before they go to bed, it's a way to be physically close and to talk about things. Rituals like reading or going for a walk together can also make that space," Ruth says.

Take care

You know when the flight attendant says: "Put the oxygen mask on yourself before helping children"? The same principle applies to the rest of life.

Self-sacrifice is an integral part of parenting, but martyrdom shouldn't be. Self-care is not selfishness. It's about treating yourself kindly.

When you make time to do the things that nourish you – reading a book on the sofa on Sunday afternoon, or practising yoga, or just taking a morning walk with a friend – you become a stronger, healthier, happier person and parent.

Many of us have completely over-loaded schedules. Yes, some of it has to be done, but we also take on unnecessary stress. It's lovely to make an effort for a birthday party, but do you need to stay up all night creating a Pinterest-worthy spectacle?

It's helpful to ask, "Why am I doing this? Does it add meaning or happiness? What if I don't do it?"

As always, you are modelling behaviour every step of the way. When your child sees you look after yourself, she learns that you are worthy of your love and care. And she is too.

Think about your values

Your values are what you believe to be right and wrong. Living in harmony with your values contributes to a sense of well-being. Children come into the world with no such notions – we teach them.

Ruth says: "You show your child what you hold dear by the way you act and what you expose them to. If you think reading is important, you will read to your children, and take them to the library."

"What you find meaningful, the way you live, what you spend your money on, the words you use, the way you treat your children and other people in your life, forms a basis for what they value. At the same time, understand that you do not have overall control. All you can do is model the behaviour and have the conversations."

Express gratitude

One way to instil a sense of abundance and to guard against entitlement is to be aware of your good fortune. Some people keep gratitude journals, and some families share "what I'm grateful for" over the supper table.

Increasingly, there's a science to back up this practice. Many studies have found that people who consciously count their blessings are happier and less depressed. Young children have no benchmark on what's "normal".

If they have a warm bed and enough to eat and a loving family and a cupboard full of clothes, well, for all they know, that's how everyone lives.

This doesn't mean they are spoiled brats; it just means that they don't know different. When you express appreciation for your life – your social and emotional blessings, as well as your material ones, they learn to notice that you and they are fortunate and happy, instead of taking things for granted.

Also read: 'Focus on time, not money': How to have a holly, jolly frugal festive with your family this year 

Communicate around your feelings

Understanding and communicating your emotions are deeply satisfying, calming and connecting. Learning to recognise one's feelings is a cornerstone of emotional intelligence (EQ) and of the ability to recognise other people's feelings and empathise with them.

This is all the more important when it comes to parenting, which can be emotionally charged and often reactive. "Parents need to be very self-aware," says Ruth.

"If they understand the things that make them fearful and uncomfortable, they'll be less likely to convey that to their children unconsciously."

Your emotional expression influences your child's emotional development. Ruth gives this advice: "Model that you can think deeply and express feelings. Let them see you talking and thinking about emotions and the wider world."

"Create a culture in your family of being able to speak openly. Children learn that we can have different ideas and points of view, and we can express them without being scared. Having different points of view doesn't mean you can't have a relationship."

This starts at a very young age, says Ruth, even with a very small baby, you talk about their feelings.

"You probably do it naturally, saying, 'Oooh, you're crying. Are you tired? Let's get you ready for bed…' When you do that, you help them name what they're feeling," she explains.

Must read: This teenager earned her fortune by naming thousands of Chinese babies 

Don't overcompensate with stuff

Jane tells the story of decluttering her kids' toys and having this sudden realisation: "Each one of those things was a little piece of my life I had squandered. I’d worked so many minutes or hours to buy it, and now it was just junk."

Shopping gives a feel-good dopamine kick. Remember, we evolved as hunters and gatherers, and when we hit those summer sales, we're like prehistoric folks who have stumbled upon a swarm of delicious locusts! We all know that the delight in a shiny new thing doesn't last.

It won't for your children, either. There's always something newer and cooler.

Material possessions, and even food, are often a way of compensating for a deeper hunger. If you're feeling guilty because you've been away on a work trip, you might buy an overpriced toy at the airport. In a year, you will be Marie Kondo-ing that stuff into a landfill somewhere!

Children thrive when you give them half as many presents and twice as much of your presence. Our culture centres on consumption. Resist it on behalf of your family by showing restraint and mindfulness around accumulating.

Words have power

Focusing on how you express yourself (verbally or in your head) can improve your state of mind. The right kind of self-talk can help you feel confident, optimistic and joyful, and negative chatter can increase stress and self-doubt. It affects children too.

Keep a mental eye on your conversations for a day or two, and see what sort of tone and subject matter you tend towards.

1. Are you often critical or complaining?

2. Do you often remark on appearance and status?

3. How do you talk about people?

4. Do you take an empathetic and generous view?

Consider the old maxim, attributed to the Persian poet and mystic Rumi: "Before you say something, ask three questions.

  • Is it true?
  • Is it necessary?
  • Is it kind?

Embrace joy

The opportunity to be creative, to explore and invent, to laugh and play, greatly enriches us.

Make space for lightness and joy, for fun and flirtation – or awe and entertainment.

It's an essential ingredient of a rich and meaningful family life.

Your children will remember it.


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