Parenting principles that foster happiness

5 Parenting Principles

Happiness and parenting: good goals, right?

There’s so much written about discipline and training, character development and education, we can sometimes forget the one ingredient that makes it all work: happiness.

I’m not talking about hedonistic vices either.
I’m talking well-being, peace, joy, safety, freedom, contentment; that deep abiding sense of “home.”

We all crave that—adults and kids alike!

As the parents, we get to set that tone every day with the choices we make. Our kids don’t have many choices. They live in the state you picked, the neighborhood you chose, the house you bought or the apartment you rented. They are either in school or not based on your research and decisions. They eat the food you buy, they wear the clothes you provide, they play with the toys you permit.

Recently my teenage son lamented the fact that I didn’t start him on violin at age 3 so that he could one day become a composer. Why didn’t I know that he would want to do that? Of course, he understood why I didn’t—but he was feeling the full weight of MY choices for HIS life.

So our kids are pretty much sidecar riders on our vision of what makes a good, satisfying life. And they know it! They feel it every time you remind them to brush their teeth or finish their scalloped potatoes or stop putting pennies in their noses.

Yet it sometimes feels to you and me that the kids run the show! They throw up thwarting behaviors at every age—pushing the bedtime line back, wanting to stay on the computer for another ten minutes, asking for cookies right before dinner, losing their soccer cleats on the day of the big game.

It’s infuriating and tiring and demanding to constantly make judgments about what they can and can’t do. At some point, it appears that the easiest course is to simply set up the schedule, the system, the program and enforce it. I remember a friend of mine said, “I don’t get why my kids won’t just go with the program! We’d all be so much happier if they would simply cooperate.”

I laughed. Apparently they wouldn’t be happier. That’s why they don’t go along! They have their own ideas of what makes them happy. We continue to imagine there’s a specific map that will ensure peace for us while providing structure for them that creates minimal chaos and maximum order.

Let me let you in on a little secret: There is no spoon. There’s no map either.

When I wrote The Writer’s Jungle, and named it such, my hope was to help moms understand how to survive and navigate the jungle-like landscape of a child’s writing life. There’s no clear path. What is there instead? Minute by minute decisions based on principles that take the child fully into account each step of the way.

Parenting works the same way.

There are principles that create a context for a satisfying home life for all, but they require minute by minute navigating with your child’s input and personality fully taken into account. Here are the ones that have worked in writing and in my kids’ lives. You’ll have others (and I hope you’ll share them in the comments section).

Notice and affirm your child’s
quirky, insightful, unique voice.

Enjoy it, affirm it, cultivate it, mirror it, share it with others and show it off. In other words, pay attention to the things your child says and fall in love with him or her every day that you can!

Pay attention to pain.

When someone says, “I hate this” or “I’m bored” it means…. “I hate this” and “I’m bored.” It doesn’t mean, “I’m lazy and pretending to be bored.” If your child were bleeding from a scraped knee and said, “I scraped my knee. It hurts,” the conclusion you would draw is “He scraped his knee; it hurts.” In relationships, it’s important to take people seriously. When they communicate pain, when they say they’re unhappy, they mean it. Solutions can be found once we allow the other person the full opportunity to explore what is stopping him or her from successfully enjoying whatever the experience is.

Discipline is not done to a person.

It’s cultivated by the individual. Discipline is supported by external structure but is governed by internal motivation. (You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink, idea.) Flexible routines make it possible for structure and motivation to coincide. Schedules rarely last. Punishment never leads anyone to self-regulated discipline, and mostly drives opposing impulses underground while fostering resentment.

Eye contact and physical touch every single day matter,
even with teens (or perhaps, especially with teens).

These are freebies. Our kids are home with us. Touch them often. I had one mom confess to me that her son asked her to rub his shoulders before he started writing and she told him “No, this is school. I can’t rub your shoulders. Get to work.” Ironically, one of the steps for freewriting is to rub your child’s shoulders before he starts writing.

Create opportunities for fun.

That means several things. You must be willing to tolerate messes, chaos, changed plans, silliness, loud noises, taking too long, going too fast, going too slow, spending money, excessive talking, changing the use of an item for the purpose of the fun (snow saucers become slip n slide rides for pet bunnies), wasting food, wasting materials, trusting your kids with adult toys (video cameras, saws, sewing machines), breaking things, losing things, and failure. If you do all this, fun happens.

So let’s boil these principles down into five easily retained ideas about kids:

  1. Enjoy them.
  2. Take them seriously.
  3. Make a flexible routine.
  4. Be affectionate.
  5. Have fun.

Tomorrow is Tuesday Teatime (a great way to do all five!) and we’ll have new photos posted from yet another Brave Writer family to share. Then on Wednesday, I want to hear from you some of the ways you apply these principles in your home. I’ll share some of the ways we’ve done it over the years, too.

I’ve loved all the feedback about this series. Keep it coming!

Joy is the best teacher.

20 Responses to “Parenting principles that foster happiness”

  1. MePregnant says:

    Parenting principles that foster happiness « A Brave Writer's Life ……

    Happiness and parenting: good goals, right? There’s so much written about discipline and training, character development and education, we can sometimes forget the one ingredient that makes it all work: happiness. ……

  2. Angele says:

    My teen hates me touching him, so it’s a playful punch in the stomach for him 🙂

  3. Julie Bogart says:

    That works! I find with teens I have to tickle them, punch them, and sometimes smother them with an attack from behind with a hug. They need them too, they just can’t always admit it. 🙂

  4. Jean says:

    We have a tradition in our house called the “math scratch.” Anyone with an open math book in front of him earns an automatic back scratch, usually right at the point he puts pencil to paper and begins problem number one. (The kids sometimes angle for a science scratch or a grammar scratch, but those haven’t quite caught on. Something about math here just seems to cry out for a little extra joy!)

  5. so true! Love your viewpoint- I have a seven year old bundle of male energy and I have learned to give where I can and hold steady when I need to:) Great article!

  6. shirin Schneider says:

    I appreciate your insights. Well put. I have phrased your “Take them seriously” advice as “Listening to their hearts.” I have often found I get major brownie points when I make sure I’ve really heard what matters to them. The same idea follows suit as I embrace the notion of them using my kitchen as a science lab and my garden tools as vital accessories to their outdoor games. What matters to them should matter to me. You are so right on so many counts. Bravo!

  7. Lori says:

    agree so much re: discipline.

    inevitably, when my boys achieve something noteworthy, someone says to me, “how did you get them to do that?” (i didn’t. they did it themselves – all true success requires self-motivation and desire!)

    and when they are doing something they love and *not* yet showing that it can be impressive to others, i hear, “are you going to tell them to stop spending so much time on that?” or “how are you going to encourage them to do something more worthwhile?”

    parents are so outcome-oriented that they break their kids’ natural ability to be immersed in something intellectually and emotionally engaging.

  8. Mary says:

    Years ago at a homeschool convention in British Columbia I heard a speaker by the name of Gordon Neufeld. His approach changed our lives, and I often wonder if Julie took seminars from him before his book came out, because what I read on Bravewriter is so similar. (You’re probably both just very in-tune, intuitive people.) Julie, your blog keeps me on track and keeps me encouraged when everyone around me is behavior-oriented. Thank you!

    Neufeld talks about relationships being a dance that we have to intuitively negotiate, not a set of methods, tricks, or rules to be imposed. A couple of the things we learned from him are:

    1) connect before you direct (make eye contact, join the kid in what they’re doing, then make your request: “Looks like you’re winning that game. Cool! Hey, when you’re done with that, would you take out the garbage?” instead of calling from the other room, “You need to take out the garbage now.”

    2) Solicit good intentions instead of demanding good behavior. People will say that good intentions aren’t enough, but Neufeld says “good intentions are like gold.” Nothing good will happen unless there is first a good intention. Praise the good intention, even if the action doesn’t come about this time.

    3) Let mad go to sad. Hold the line (let your ‘no’ be ‘no’ in a kind but firm way–I fail at this almost daily) and if you don’t short-circuit the process, the child will eventually get past anger to feeling sadness. One last quote: “The parent needs to be both an agent of futility and an angel of comfort…To facilitate adaptation, a parent must dance the child to his tears, to the place of letting go, and to the sense of rest that comes in the wake of letting go. It is a deeply fulfilling and rewarding dance. It is not a discipline that divides but a discipline that unifies.”

    I highly recommend his book, “Hold On To Your Kids.” His publisher told him to drop the chapter on homeschooling, because the rest of his message is countercultural enough, but it’s a great book even so, and probably more palatable to a broader audience this way.

    It’s a challenge every day for a non-people-person, task-oriented mom like me, but this attachment approach to parenting is what it’s all about. Thanks for all the wonderful reminders, Julie.

  9. I second the book recommendation that Mary made. There’s a Winnipeg homeschooling mom who works as a parenting counselor who trained for more than a decade with Dr. Neufeld and her seminars have really clicked for me. It’s about attachment parenting beyond the baby stage.


    Back to the comment I was going to make:

    One of my secrets for happiness in parenting: Remember that everyone in the family is a person and make choices based on that.

    The child is not on their way to personhood, is not an incomplete, untrained person. The child is a person. But so is the mother. I am not a servant or an unending well-spring of energy and enthusiasm. My needs as a person have to be part of our family, just as the child’s personhood needs to be respected.

    Treat others as we’d like to be treated, and be as good to ourselves as we are to others. 😉

  10. Julie Bogart says:

    Prairie: Love this comment. You anticipate me. Wednesday’s theme has to do with this genuine intersection: each person matters and attending to everyone’s needs is key to relational peace. We’ll explore that more!

    Love the rec from you and Mary, too. Will check out that author. Why haven’t I been to Canada yet to meet you all? Invite me!

  11. harrygirl says:

    I too am in full support of the principles that you put forward about parenting, Julie. I really enjoy hearing thoughts from someone who thinks so similarly to our family. We have gone through much upheaval in our family in recent years as we have awoken to the fact that our kids have needs and feelings and that those feelings and needs are of value, and that the ultimate goal is not simply that they are obedient. I must admit, though, that here in the midst of another very trying day of schooling with my 13yo, I find it almost impossible to put any of those principles into practice! Any ideas, anyone about how to “weather the storm”?

  12. Mary says:

    harrygirl, I feel for you, because I’ve been there too many times. I’m not sure if this is the best approach, but what I often do is just back off and let school go for the day. After we’ve cooled down, I’ll try reading aloud, watching a movie, or initiating a trip to the library. Or, maybe everyone just does their own thing for a couple of hours. We’ll usually do at least math in the evening, to try to stay somewhat on track, and often end up getting to other school work later in the day or evening too.

    We have virtually no schedule (which creates problems of its own), so it’s not like if I blow something off one day, it’s going to be that much harder to get the routine going again the next day. So, if you have a routine that generally works for you, maybe someone else will be able to give you some more useful pointers that won’t completely wreck your schedule.


    Julie: I’m back in Northern California now, so someone else will have to invite you to beautiful Vancouver. I should check your site for what it would take to get you here to the North Bay.

    Jean: Math scratch–wow! I’m going to borrow that one!

  13. Harrygirl, my daughter hit puberty early – we were having storms at 8, 9, and 10 already! But here’s what I do: in the midst of one of these outbursts I remembered what it was like to be in the grip of the hormones in your body, feeling pushed by chemistry and yet trapped by life. It was an awful feeling! I talked to my daughter and said, “Look, I know you’ve got all these feelings bubbling and roaring inside you. I remember feeling that so vividly. I used to let those feelings out like you’re doing now. Sometimes even worse. I was like a volcano blasting out with hot lava, throwing it around. But you know what, that lava hit the people around me. Grampa, Oma, Aunt Katie. I hurt them. And I was still feeling like crap on the inside. I hadn’t solved my problem and I’d hurt people.”

    “It’s ok to feel the way you’re feeling. It’s just not ok to let those feelings out that way.”

    So now, whenever something’s happening I just need to say, “Lava,” as a one-word code. It tells the kids they’re losing control and they need to get it back.

    Maybe that helps?

  14. Julie Bogart says:

    What a great solution! I love that Prairie.

  15. Marcia says:

    I third Gordon Neufeld~! Hold on To Your kids is a great book!
    Julie, your parenting philosphy comes through in your work…and it’s beautiful.

  16. Katy says:


    Why do you do this to me?

    6 months ago our life was pretty hectic. It didn’t seem like school was getting “done” and we definitely weren’t keeping to any fun Bravewriter routine. So I bit the bullet and spent a small fortune enrolling my kids in a curriculum where they would have to send their work to an outside teacher. It was bliss. I was off the hook, kids were at their desks first thing in the morning, a mother’s dream. Then came the dreaded book reports and comments such as, “I don’t feel like it is ME writing this.”

    Then last week this wonderful email hit my inbox, just as I was realizing that our life had changed again and maybe we could take some time to make life fun again, if it ever really was before. After reading your blog, comments and jumping over to the Scratchpad, I am walking around the house doing my chores thinking things like; “What if I was sitting on the couch waiting to read aloud to the first child who comes down the stairs? What if we take the day “off” and spend the morning at the library reading whatever looks interesting and then go out to lunch and shopping for birthday supplies? Will my husband notice if we quit using that curriculum I told him we needed to spend all that money on?”

    Thank you for the reminders.


  17. harrygirl says:

    Thanks for the ideas for weathering the storm with my 13yo. I am afraid, and have a fair bit of evidence to support my fears, that if we just backed right off – there actually wouldn’t be any school work done at all. We have always homeschooled – which has been quite a satisfying task for me, until the past 18 months or so. We sent two of our children to school for a term as a trial (my husband is ill and the load was too much for me). After two terms at school, our 13yo came home, after much difficulty with bullying. It has really been very difficult to get any amount of consistent co-operation out of him since then. Prior to going to school we had a fairly standard routine – schoolwork in the morning, the afternoons fairly free. Now he wants to plan his own time and have more freedom – only trouble is he doesn’t do any work. Has anyone else been in a situation like this?

    Sorry – that was all off the topic of parenting. I have read a book about parenting, and how the parenting we received as kids impacts our own parenting. It’s called “Giving The Love That Heals”. There is one little part in there that particulary spoke to me. It is talking about what message we want to be giving to our kids with each interaction. I’d like to share it. “You’re OK. You have permission to be who you are, to be fully alive and express your aliveness, and to experience connection with others and to that which is greater than yourself.” I wish I didn’t fail at that so often.

  18. Rachel says:


    My sons are 16, 14 & 8. I can attest to some of the changes they go through in the teenage years. Sleeping in the morning might well be a good use of his time! Something that rang out to me is that “he’s asking to plan his own time and have more freedom.” Bravo to you both! This is so good. He told you what he needs. Awesome. Now get to work. My kids have no, hold on *NO* idea of how long they are doing anything. Showers? 5 minutes max in my world. 20 if they can for the boys. Although they think it was 2 minutes. Video gaming? They think that was 2 minutes too…2 hours later! Something helpful for us has been to own a bunch of timers. If they aren’t into math right now I say fine, just do 15 minutes and I set the timer…and I sit nearby. I gently say things like, “Hey, Fabio!” when I notice one of them lost in his reflection in the glass of the window. We get pink cheeks and back on track. The teens do live in a time bubble and time management is difficult. But I’m not there to force them with anything. They have goals. I’m around to help them out. The timer is a tool for them to use. And they do use them. It stinks to be 16 and arrive late somewhere due to time management issues. Not to mention the effects of feeling late on young drivers, etc. He appreciates the approach of calling his attention to time management even when it’s with my poor humor. 🙂 The role of parent is an honor. We get to spend hours with these quirky, fun people. We do what we can to help our kids achieve their dreams. The difference between a dream and a goal is a plan. You are on your way. Get a plan!

    Hope this helps!

    ~Rachel in NH

  19. harrygirl says:

    Thanks Rachel in NH. We have a timer we use for computer turns, for the exact same reasons as your family uses them – 2 hours feels like 2 minutes! I think a question to him from me along the lines of: “I know ultimately you want to plan your own time – so what steps can we take together to help you get to where you want to go?” might be in order. When there has been a whole run of fairly awful days I find it can be tricky seeing the unique and wonderful person inside my son, and not just reacting to all the difficulty that has already been, at the first sign of trouble on a new day (does that make any sense?) Time to make a plan….

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