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Dad Next Door Family closeness

Dad Next Door: The rich get richer

Nurturing, close family relationships give kids the best chance for lifelong happiness

Why do we do it? 

Why do we keep picking up that plastic spoon no matter how many times it gets hurled onto the floor? Why do we get down on our hands and knees and do the voices for Mommy and Daddy bunny until our brains congeal into cottage cheese? Why do we keep buying Legos no matter how many times we step on them in our stocking feet? Why do we stand in the freezing rain, next to a muddy field in the middle of November, while a hoard of 7-year-olds swarm pointlessly around a soccer ball like killer bees? Why do we sit through a half-dozen middle school “Welcome Prospective Families” presentations, eating stale sugar cookies in dingy cafeterias? Why do we listen patiently to accusations of unfairness and selfishness from teenagers who can’t even take a shower without leaving a trail of hair products and wet towels across the bathroom floor?


I’m guessing that, for most of us, the answer is easy. We want our kids to be happy. We think that somehow, the sacrifices we make, the crosses we bear, and the tedium we endure will bring them one step closer to a healthier, happier existence. 

But will it?

I hate to break it to you, but the answer is in, and it has been for a long time. The Harvard Study of Adult Development, which has followed more than a thousand people for 84 years over several generations, has created a treasure trove of data on what conditions are associated with long-term happiness over a lifetime. Spoiler alert: it’s not which middle school you get into.

By far the greatest predictor of happiness is our closeness to our family, friends and social circles. Not only does it increase our chance of subjective well being, it correlates strongly with better mental health, physical health, career success and longevity. It’s the magical ring to rule them all.

So, that means we’re done here, right? All we have to do is make sure our kids have tons of loving, intimate relationships with the people around them, and their lives will be peachy. Just like ours . . .


But don’t lose heart. As complicated and elusive as intimacy seems, you’re in a better position to affect your kids’ future relationships than anyone else in the world. That’s because the way they go about forming attachments will be modeled on the first and most important one they experience–their attachment to you. 

What we attract

The mysterious thing we call “attraction,” which draws us to particular people more than others, is heavily influenced by the family crucible in which our relationship style is forged. The writer and parenting expert Dr. Becky Kennedy says we are often drawn to someone because we recognize that we have the corresponding puzzle piece that fits with theirs. If we learned, as children, that love meant pursuing an emotionally distant parent, that’s the kind of person we try to love. If we first experienced connection by rescuing and soothing an anxious, histrionic parent, we look for that same connection with someone else. On the other hand, if we experienced parents who loved us warmly and unconditionally, but with consistent boundaries and respect, that’s what we seek in our lovers and friends. 

The rich get richer

There’s an inherent unfairness to this. If, through no fault of your own, you were born to parents with a dysfunctional attachment style, you may find yourself recreating that style in your own life, and passing it on to your kids. On the other hand, if you won the lottery and ended up securely and intimately connected to your parents, you’ll probably buy even more winning tickets when you choose your romantic partners and friends. The rich get richer, and so do their children. It’s like capitalism, only with a reverse estate tax. 

Hard work

Luckily, history is not destiny. Even if your own relationship with your parents leaves something to be desired, you can still forge a healthier one with your kids. It’s hard work, though. It takes guts, and self-knowledge, and a willingness to change. It can be more painful than a Lego piece in the tenderest part of your instep. But it’s almost guaranteed to improve your children’s happiness–and your own as well. 

That leads me to one last little piece of free advice. Someday, when your kid has outgrown their knee-jerk impulse to completely disregard anything you say, they just might ask you how anyone can know if they should spend the rest of their life with someone. 

A good question

Tell them to find out what that person’s relationship with their parents is like. History may not be destiny, but it’s a force to be reckoned with. They should know what they’re getting into. 

More at Seattle’s Child:

“Dad Next Door: It’s not about the bathrooms”

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at