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Raising Happy Kids

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When my son was about 11 years old, he carted his Harry Potter book out to the backyard, spread out a blanket and announced, "I love my life."

I felt like I'd struck gold, hit pay dirt and won the lottery. What more do we want for our kids than to see them enjoying life's simple pleasures? In a world that is constantly pushing us to buy more, have more, do more and be more, it can be difficult to raise kids who feel content and grateful.

Here are some thoughts about how to raise children to enjoy and appreciate what they have.

1. Prime your children to look for things to be glad about. Before they head off for school, ask them to name one thing they are likely to enjoy in the day ahead. Rather than focusing on negatives, help them step into their day with an intention and expectation that something wonderful is going to happen. It doesn't have to be anything big -- it might be as simple as, "I'm going to go try to go really high in the swing!" or "We get to take the hamster out today and play with him." Priming your kids to anticipate good things happening in their life will help them be on the lookout for positive experiences.

2. Live in a way that models gratitude. We all know that children take cues from their parents, but we can forget that -- as with some reality TV shows -- the cameras are rolling 24 hours a day. When your kids hear you complain that the restaurant is too noisy, spoiling the entire meal by muttering about how awful the atmosphere is, they will learn to be unhappy when things aren't perfect. Similarly, if they watch you go out of your way to warmly thank someone who holds the elevator door for you, or see you take a moment to acknowledge your mail carrier for delivering an especially heavy package, they will absorb the message that giving thanks is a way of life.

3. Help your children experience the pleasure of sharing their natural gifts and abilities with others. I asked Maureen Healy, author of Growing Happy Kids, what she thinks is an important factor in raising a happy child."A key element in children who are happy is that they have the chance to use their talents and give to others," she told me. Kids who volunteer to wash dogs at a local shelter or push little ones on the swings at the park get a boost of good feeling by being generous and kind to others.

4. Create dinnertime rituals that include sharing good news or appreciating someone at the table. Be careful not to force kids to share artificial words out of guilt or pressure. Instead, show them what it looks and sounds like to offer a kind word and they'll naturally follow suit. "James, I wanted to thank you for helping me pick out a card for Grandma's birthday. I think she's really going to like the one you chose!" or "Today someone at work offered to help me figure out a new program we're using. He was so patient, even though it took me a while to understand it."

5. End the day reflecting on what went well. Some families encourage their children to write in a gratitude journal, weaving into their bedtime routine the chance to enter in three to five moments that felt good or made them smile. My own journal remains next to my bed; writing in it every night is a wonderful way to end the day.

If you weave gratitude and appreciation into your family's day-to-day life, happiness will occur naturally. Even when life gives them lemons, if your children grow up learning to look for what is good, they'll always be able to make lemonade.