Q. My fourth grade son Elijah’s class has been talking about New Year’s resolutions, so he brought it up at dinner last night. His sister Sienna got excited and immediately wanted us all to come up with resolutions. I fear that if we make resolutions, we’ll make little progress toward meeting them, and they will be soon forgotten. For the past ten years, my resolution has been to clean out my closets, without success. What resolutions do you think are important? Can kids make and keep New Year’s resolutions?

A. You ask what resolutions are important. The answer is probably resolutions that make life better for you and others around you. One resolution I suggest is focusing on happiness for yourself and doing whatever you reasonably can to help your family and friends to be happy, too. I see unhappy children and unhappy spouses in therapy. There are many other unhappy people who never make it in to therapy.

What makes a family member unhappy? When someone perceives they are not being listened to, respected, treated fairly or given safe space to speak up, they complain of being unhappy – and often they look unhappy. Little is more important than feeling safe, loved and respected in your family. People clam up when they perceive others will be critical of their perceptions and thoughts. Sigmund Freud said something that should guide us in interactions with others: “Choose your words wisely, because with them you can drive [another person] to the heights of ecstasy or the depths of despair.”

Why not focus on the goal of happiness for yourself and your family and friends? This happy state in the family would in many cases be more important than organized closets – even though there is nothing wrong with tackling both closets and creating a happy life.

Currently, I am reading “The Art of Happiness” by the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler, M.D. The Dalai Lama wrote, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion and if you want yourself to be happy, practice compassion.” He goes on to say, “Researchers on human happiness identify compassionate service to others as one of the key characteristics shared by many of the world’s happiest people.” Compassion for your family and friends will result in a happier family. A mother once told me that she thinks “happiness is overrated.” I respectfully disagree; I believe feeling happy is something we can accomplish if we work on it, and it sure beats unhappiness.

You asked if children can make and keep resolutions. Yes they can, and you can help them do it. Your children may want to have the same resolution as yours, or they may want something different. You can talk about resolutions in the car, at the table and/or before bedtime. It will help to write down each family member’s resolutions and set daily or weekly reviews of progress.

The more benefits you see coming from your resolution, the more apt you are to carry it out, and that goes for your children, too. For example, a child may resolve to practice the tuba even if he doesn’t want to; he does it because he likes the praise he receives as he gets better or he likes knowing he is playing better. Or maybe it keeps him in the band with his friends, who also play instruments.

Good luck with your resolutions. Remember that working on resolutions doesn’t include “nagging” or being negative about self or others. Working on resolutions can be fun and educational. This could be the year that you and your children complete your resolutions!

Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.

Got a question for Betty Richardson? Email us here and you just might see the answer in an upcoming issue!

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