I'm always struck by our willingness as mothers to take care of our children—and often their fathers and a host of others around us—before we take care of ourselves. Right around now, at the end of the school year, I start really noticing it a lot. Moms at my kids' school have just finished planning and executing the Spring fundraiser, and are now gearing up for teacher appreciation day. They are writing letters to address two measures on the June ballot related to school funding, and planning end-of-the-school-year parties. They are tired.

Calling run-down moms everywhere: this Mother's Day, let's all take the advice of the airlines and put on our own oxygen masks first before helping those around us. I'm not saying don't help those around you, but rather that should you become faint from lack of oxygen, you won't be much good to anyone at all. Speaking for myself, I've found that a certain core of peace and centeredness is necessary before I can really get engaged in raising happy, compassionate, and altruistic children. Here's why:

  1. If we get depressed, it may affect our children adversely. An extensive body of research has established a substantial link between depressed mothers and "negative outcomes" in their children, like acting out and other behavior problems. Parental depression actually seems to cause behavior problems in kids: it bothers kids to see their parents upset and unhappy, and they express this by behaving badly. Depressed parents also demonstrate poorer parenting skills, and so are less likely to correct bad behavior in constructive ways. Depressed mothers tend to be less sensitive and proactive in responding to their children's needs, and are less likely to play with their children in emotionally positive ways. Kids with chronically depressed mothers—mothers whose feelings of sadness and despair persist—perform more poorly on school readiness tests, use less expressive language, and have poorer social skills. And it isn't just depression: anxiety in mothers (something I'm prone to) is associated with increased anxiety in children.
  2. The reverse is also true: when I do what it takes to be happy myself, my children reap the benefits. Kids mimic their parents, especially when they are younger. Children imitate their parents' emotions as early as 6 days old; it is one of the primary ways that they learn and grow. So if we model happiness—and all the skills that go with it—our kids are likely to behave in the same way. If I model a key happiness habit like kindness and generosity, for example, my daughters are more likely to become kind and generous.

    And because research shows that people's emotions tend to converge—we become more similar emotionally the more we are together—it follows that the happier I am, the happier my children will be. Dacher Keltner and his colleagues ran an interesting series of experiments that show that people in close relationships become more similar to each other over time. The studies showed that the emotions and emotional reactions of friends and lovers actually become more alike over the course of a year (Anderson, Keltner & John, 2003). Another study, attempting to determine the degree to which shared genetics dictate similar emotional outlooks in parents and children, came up short: while they did find that happy parents are statistically more likely to have happy children, they couldn't find a genetic component. Like roommates and lovers, the emotions of children and parents can be very similar, but not because they are cut from the same cloth, so to speak.

  3. Emotions in general are just plain contagious. A political scientist from the University of California, San Diego and a Harvard sociologist have recently documented that happiness is particularly contagious. Their conclusion, which is based on an analysis of people's social connections over 20 years, is that our happiness depends on the happiness of those around us. Having happy friends, neighbors, and siblings that live in close proximity to you increases your odds of being happy—the positive emotions of one community member clearly spread to others (Fowler & Christakis, 2008).
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So it turns out that the first step in the science of raising happy kids is to actually be happy yourself. Happy Mother's Day to all of you out there who do so much for everyone else all year: may Mother's Day be dedicated not just to all you do and all you are, but also to your own happiness!

*THANK YOU* for all of your comments (and photos) lately! I'm going to start doing a comment round-up each week so that people can see the interesting discussions that are happening all over the blog, and so that I can do a better job in answering your questions.

This week: tell us what YOU do to put your own oxygen mask on first. What makes you happy? Do your kids seem happier when you are happy?

© 2009 Christine Carter, Ph.D.

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What I have started doing to take care of myself in the last year or so is to take a weekend to myself every quarter. Every time the seasons change, I schedule a weekend retreat for myself and bring along my journal, bag of books, and sometimes a yoga mat– sometimes I go to a retreat center, sometimes I rent a cottage or a hotel room; it’s just good to be alone and have time to think, write, and be in nature without interruption. I find it makes me appreciate my family more, and it also gives my husband (and kids– aged 4 and 7) a chance to learn to manage without me. I knew it would be good for me, but what has surprised me is that it’s also turned out to be good for all of them.

Paula | 4:27 pm, May 9, 2009 | Link


As much as I love my son, I miss the freedom I had in my pre-mom days. The two best recharges for me are:
1) Meeting a girlfriend for lunch, shopping, or just hanging out without regard to the time. I’m reminded of how much I appreciate my friendships when we can talk uninterrupted about things that were important to me before I became a wife and mother.
2) Reading a magazine while getting a pedicure. Because I’m so busy now, I really appreciate the silence, the time to read, and to have someone take care of ME, even if it’s just for a half hour. Plus it makes me feel so glamous – something that doesn’t happen much anymore!

Anne | 11:44 am, May 12, 2009 | Link


My husband “interviewed” my daughter and put her answers on a card for me for mother’s day.  Her answer to the question “what is mommy’s favorite thing to do?” was: “go to work.”  When I read it, it made me really sad that she thought that, but as I’ve reflected on it, maybe it’s a good thing that she sees that there are many things that make me happy, and my happiness is not totally dependent on her and her little brother.  I work three days a week and it does add significantly to my happiness.

Amy Starr Redwine | 8:54 am, May 13, 2009 | Link


While all this is really important information and sound advice, I just want to make a shout out to the moms who really struggle with serious depression. It’s not always as easy for these women to shift their mood from depressed to happy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are damaging their children. Kids need to see their mothers upset as well as happy so they can learn about the wide range of feelings we have as human beings. A little sadness now and then is not only normal but helpful in raising sensitive and empathic children.

Dr. Andra Brosh | 11:15 pm, June 3, 2009 | Link


Dear Christine,

Have missed your posts and am hoping that we will be hearing from you again soon.
I use my commute time to listen to audio recordings of favorite authors, podcasts and music. This is my sacred time and I don’t mind the occassional traffic delay. My iPod and satellite radio were great investments for me.



Anne R. | 7:32 pm, July 10, 2009 | Link


Some women have a hard time asking for help and delegating.  If we can be direct and positive in making requests, we might get the help we need and the time to make sure our batteries get charged by doing things that give us joy. Guys tend to take things at face value, not read between the lines. So if you need him to do something, be simple, concrete & use an upbeat tone (cheerful, not psycho perky).

Dearlizzie | 8:28 am, August 6, 2009 | Link


thank you! “Put your own oxygen mask on first” has been my mantra for years, and not just in relation to kids. Now that I have a baby, I find myself extra motivated to stay happy.

anne | 6:23 am, October 27, 2009 | Link

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