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The Secret to Raising a Happy Kid

Photograph by Twenty20

Ask any group of parents what they want for their kids and you'll hear a variety of answers: success, wealth, to have a life a bit better than ours. Just check out the weekend schedules of your parenting peers, who race from the soccer game to the tennis tournament then back across town for chess club. We all want to give our kids the best of everything—but there is a fine line between enjoying activities and being overwhelmed. Turns out finding that balance isn't so easy.

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When my son was little it seemed like each new stage he reached meant more activities and groups to participate in. When he was 6 months old you would find us at playgroups twice each week, trying new parks and trading tales of the milestones our babies had reached. By 2.5 years old, he was old enough for preschool Tuesday and Thursday mornings.

In the beginning we did lots of fun things that weren't too organized. Library reading time was always a hit, and we stayed afterwards to grab a huge bag of books to check out. We started to do some easy hikes with friends, visited nature centers and threw rocks in the creek. But as he got older, the questions started coming—from all angles. When will he go to preschool? Does he do gymnastics? Do you speak another language to him at home?

It started to feel like I was failing at modern motherhood, simply by just letting him play.

From that point on, the choices became almost unmanageable. Should he try chess lessons or science camp? Karate or Spanish? Private year-round swim lessons? Parents now have such an incredible array of activities available for their children it becomes easy to lose sight of the true purpose of childhood: to be a kid. It started to feel like I was failing at modern motherhood, simply by just letting him play. And he loved to play, especially pretend. But what about a passion? Wasn't it my job to help him find one—or possibly several?

"The reality is that passion shifts as kids grow, and that's a good thing," shares Mom.me contributor Katie Hurley, LCSW, in her book "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise a Joyful Child in a Stressful World." "Every child has a spark, and you don't need to focus on what you perceive as your child's talents to find it." Hurley goes on to say that while your child may be very interested in a particular sport or hobby, she might have no skill set in this area.

"So how do we help our children find their areas of interest and what does it really mean to support them?" Hurley asks. "Supporting our children as they reach for their dreams (their dreams of the moment, anyway) is a balancing act."

I struggled with this balance between wanting my son to play and have fun, yet worrying that somehow he would fall behind the others if he didn't take this class or play that sport.

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So how do we find this balance? Maybe we all need to listen to our inner child to find the answers our kids need. The first time I listened to my inner child, my son was in pre-K at a co-op school I loved. And he loved it too, for the first year.

But as the second year progressed there was more structure, more academic expectations and not as much fun, creative play. Every day when I picked him up there was something that had "gone wrong" with his day. My heart wanted to pull him out, but I struggled with the fact that every other kid his age was in preschool. It was an expected part of childhood, yet one that had started to feel constricting.

So, instead of the sandbox full of pushing and shoving, we went to the beach and dug holes for hours. Instead of having to "clean up" after free-time, we built huge block cities and left them up for days. We drove across bridges just to see what was on the other side. One day we stopped to watch a field full of cows grazing—and they watched us back. We pretended to be royalty, the garbage man, pirates, soldiers or knights. I wasn't really teaching him anything at all, but he was learning to wonder. And I think wonder is what leads to passionate pursuits at any age.

As he got older, my son tried lots of different activities. Some were a big hit, while others didn't stick. Every new pursuit left a small imprint on him, pushing him in a new direction each time. The kid who never had any interest in learning a musical instrument saved his money and bought a guitar. Just this past summer, he decided to give woodworking a try and built a few side tables, lamps and shelves. And while we don't expect him to play before a sellout crowd or design his own line of furniture, it's pretty cool to see where his interests take him when he follows his own lead.

Looking back, that decision to pull him out of the preschool a few months early was one of the best things I did as a mom. Back then, I thought my son had to try all the things, to have a childhood experience full of awesome achievements and activities. What I learned, though, was that he really just needed to experience childhood itself.

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