April 15, 2024


5 Habits to Help Kids Be Happier Today

By: John Tuttle

In the U.S. and other countries, we suffer the paradox of children losing their innocence at younger and younger ages, while we simultaneously demand less responsibility from them. The result is a generation of people who don’t know how to stand up for themselves or enact positive change in their lives and, instead, fall into the manipulation of social media algorithms, addictions, and instant gratification.

In 2023, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued a statement suggesting caution in exposure to social media. Murthy said:

“Children are exposed to harmful content on social media, ranging from violent and sexual content, to bullying and harassment. And for too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends. We are in the middle of a national youth mental health crisis, and I am concerned that social media is an important driver of that crisis.”

Sexuality is a casual topic to be found on the Internet and in entertainment geared to kids under the age of puberty. Instagram images can fill kids’ heads with unrealistic desires, or with a sense of not being as desirable as other, “more attractive” individuals. On social media, everyone else’s life seems more interesting, more attractive, more fulfilling. A scroll through our favorite social network leaves us feeling more empty than when we began.

Data from the CDC also shows that obesity in children and adolescents increased since the 1970s and has continued an upward trend even into the past few decades. The physical and mental well-being of many of today’s youth seems to be taking a turn for the worse. Being overweight, struggling in relationships, and battling depression or imposter syndrome don’t lead to happiness.

Finding real happiness is something the modern generation longs for. Here are some common sense ideas to help improve the health of our posterity, to help prepare them not just for adulting but for flourishing!

Quality Time within Community

Whether it’s family ties, a romantic relationship, or being part of a congregation, human beings long for connection and community. When we feel inadequate, weighed down by personal insecurities, it can be easier to turn to social media as a substitute for a more personal relationship. But, as already discussed, that outlet often leaves a more hollow feeling in us than before.

The family is a person’s first introduction to community, sharing, and responsibility. It’s where we should first learn how to love and care for others. The family needs to support those who feel outcast or insecure.

I’ve taught for a few years now and have seen plenty of kids hungry for attention. My peers have confirmed witnessing this behavior in their own classrooms. Children often don’t get the care and attention they need in the home. So they try to satiate that thirst for quality time by getting the attention of other students and of their teachers.

If young people don’t get attention from their parents and teachers, those entrusted with their upbringing, they will seek community through other avenues. Not all of those outlets will be beneficial. The search for community and belonging could lead them to an unhealthy dependency on social media or involvement with gangs or political protestors. They need something to fill the void.

The remedy? Simple. Spend less time on your device, and go spend some quality time with your kid.

Responsibility = Growth

Making minors work in factories in poor working conditions is not my idea of taking care of the next generation. But giving responsibility to the youth doesn’t have to look like Industrial Revolution-era child labor. It doesn’t even have to be physically demanding work.

Just providing kids with chores to do around the house gives them a sense of responsibility within their family—within their first community. It also allows them to contribute in their own unique ways.

Things like cleaning the dishes, setting the table for dinner, or making popcorn for everyone on movie night might seem insignificant at the moment, but those small actions help foster independence and teamwork. Even having a kid pick the movie or show everyone watches could serve as an exercise in voicing opinions and sharing ideas.

All these habits cultivated in the home prepare young people for making decisions and providing for others in communities outside the family. This will help them at their first job and in their relationships.

Good Sleep

Sleep is crucial to human well-being. No matter your age, sleep is as much a necessity as breathing, eating, and drinking. Pediatricians find that a significant portion of children and adolescents struggle with sleeping problems. It’s recommended that a child in elementary school should get 9-12 hours of sleep daily. Teens should get 8-10 hours; adults, 7 or more. 

Of course, getting a good night’s rest doesn’t consist solely of how long you’re in bed for. The quality of sleep is impacted by variables like what you’re looking at and thinking about before bed, what your body takes in before sleeping, and the light and temperature of your bedroom. The CDC suggests avoiding heavy meals and caffeinated or alcoholic beverages before winding down for the evening. They also recommend regular exercise to help fall asleep more easily later in the day.

According to the Sleep Foundation, sleep affects our attitude, alertness, learning, and cognitive performance in our waking hours. When we get enough good sleep, we perform better physically, socially, and academically. The same goes for our kids.

More Time Outdoors

Today, children seem to spend more time indoors on screens (sometimes further sheltered inside virtual worlds) than they do outdoors. We grew up riding our bikes around town and enjoying the summer sun. Those were good times! Many of us, as adults, try to reclaim those times of outdoor adventure. We go kayaking, hiking, and camping. There’s something inherently human about exploring the great outdoors. It’s also therapeutic.

Many religions have a conception of the human soul. The medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas believed humans exist as body-soul composites, that the body and soul are one single unity. Prof. Chad Engelland, pulling from Aquinas’s body of work, suggests our very soul touches our flesh and allows us to discover the truth.

One truth we should realize easily enough is that getting out in nature is good for us — physically and mentally. Being active and getting a fair amount of UV radiation is good for our bodies. But if our senses affect our souls, and the movements of our souls affect our moods, then the outdoors can help our mental health too.

A few years ago, Ivy League college publications highlighted studies about the effects of nature therapy on young people, noting how it could especially help college students stressing over finals. “Nature therapy” can be as simple as spending 10-50 minutes outside. Studies show this can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and improve blood pressure and heart rate.

Some people find “forest bathing” beneficial to boost their immune system and decrease depression. The youth of today could equally benefit from more time spent outside in nature.

A Healthy Diet

A lack of sleep can lead to ADHD-like symptoms in children. Something that also impacts young people’s attitudes is their diet. Reports show that artificial food dyes, for example, can lead to hyperactivity and neurological problems in children.

The food provided at schools and colleges across the U.S. could certainly improve in some areas. We ought to take a cue from Brazil. Their National School Feeding Program provides daily meals to millions of students. Pulling from the experience of 8,000 nutritionists, the program emphasizes fruits and vegetables in kids’ diets rather than sugary sweets. This focus on fresh produce is meant to decrease child obesity in Brazil.

If we were to vet the foods in our school lunches as carefully as Brazil, we could lessen the number of childhood health complications in the U.S.

All these suggestions have the potential to improve the well-being of the next generation. But it requires something of us. We can’t expect the kids of today to be responsible if we don’t show them what responsibility looks like. We can’t expect them to contribute to society if we don’t offer them a community within the home. Good food and sleep and exercise and play — we get to introduce them to these habits. Their success depends at least in part on what we do for them right now.