5 Ways We Can Teach Happiness to Our Kids

“Giving your kid the opportunity to choose their happiness is essential.”

We’ve got to ask ourselves as parents, what is the single most important thing we can teach our kids to be? I would contend it is to be happy.

This answer seems simple enough, but the road map by which we often place our kids on is anything but focused on this one endeavor. We look for the most skilled coaches who can train our kids to be the best athletes. We work to have our children placed in the best academic opportunities so they can earn the highest scores and grades. We strive to ensure they get accepted to the best colleges so they can be better positioned for a promising career. By doing that at all times, we teach our kids to define their own value and merit by those benchmarks.

All of this wrangling and jockeying for our kids’ benefit is often anything but beneficial. Imagine for one moment that, as parents, we agreed to create opportunities for our children not based on their athletic advancement, academic achievement or career potential, but on the opportunity for them to experience and exercise happiness. In effect, we give ‘happiness’ a greater value for our children than any other factor in our decision process. In order to do this, we first have to understand what it is that makes them (and us) happy. That’s a pretty elusive definition, but essentially for me it is anything that fulfills our needs or our soul.

Parents must make a good number of decisions for our kids. As kids grow and mature, they begin to make more and more decisions on their own. The problem that I’ve witnessed over the past several years is that more and more parents continue to make decisions for their kids. Those decisions are often times not based on what makes their kids happy, but rather what makes the parent happy. Part of this dilemma is a result of the pace of life and speed to which our decision process has increased. That speed often compounds the universal parental fear that “if my child does not excel, they will be left behind.” Frankly, we don’t take the time to really think about what our children need. It’s much quicker and easier to decide for them.

Over the course of over 21 years running summer camps for thousands of children, I have seen the direct impact of placing happiness at the forefront of caring for kids. We employ a little over 300 counselors, directors, and support staff in our camp programs. Our curriculum at camp involves athletics, games, art, science, etc.. Our first priority for filling these positions, though, is not based on expertise in those activities. Rather, our biggest criterion is the ability and aptitude to create happiness in a child. We provide great curriculum activities, events and projects, but the end goal is to create an opportunity where a kid feels great about themselves, develops greater confidence in the process and has fun. Essentially, we are fostering happiness. And in the end, happy kids are more excited about trying new things, striving for success and dealing with inevitable failure. Isn’t that what we want them to do for themselves?

So what can we do to help foster a greater level of happiness in our kids? Here are five practices for fostering happiness as a parent:

1. Choose To Surround Your Kid with Happiness Makers
My kids love to play sports and they have been coached by a number of individuals. I seek out coaches who’s number one lessons are those that apply off the field. I want a coach who is concerned more with the value of my child than the score of the game. Yes, I am competitive and love to win, however; the greatest wins come win my kid feels great about himself and that is internal score, not an external one.

2. Let Your Kid Choose
We have a tendency as parents to move our kids towards our own likes and passions. That is sometimes great. But if your kid wants to opt for a yoga class as opposed to soccer, give them the chance to lead. True happiness is self-generated and actualized. It is a choice. Giving your kid the opportunity to choose their happiness is essential. When they are no longer under your roof, they will be better off understanding how to make happiness happen on their own.

3. Change Your Vernacular
When praising your child, let them know they are loved not for what they do but for who they are. You are your child’s most powerful advocate. Make your words demonstrate that at all times.

4. Recognize and Reward Happiness
We tend to reward our kids for tangible things like scores, points and benchmarks. Start asking your kid if what they did made them happy. If it did, praise them for that alone, no matter the score. If it didn’t, that says something also.

5. Demonstrate Happiness Yourself
Do things in your life that make you happy and generate happiness. Volunteer and give back. Show gratitude for even the small things and place a higher importance on the experiences instead of the possessions in your life. Take time to value and partake in happiness yourself. The greatest gift you can give your child is yourself. Happy parents make happy kids. Miserable parents, well…you understand.

Happiness is way underrated. It’s time we began valuing this greatest of human endeavors for what it is. If we are to grow our children to be happy and healthy adults, we must first provide them with the opportunity and tools to be so when they are children. Pharrell sang it best, “Clap along if you feel that happiness is the truth.” It is the truth, and it’s time we approached parenting like it is.






Kidventure Live Stream: Summer Camp 2015

This is a live broadcast hosted by Kidventure’s Mike McDonell

It’s Anchors Aweigh as Kidventure sets off on its 21st year of summer camp. Join us for an informative evening as we highlight this summer’s new camp offerings, expanded campsites and even more reason to be a part of what was voted ‘Texas’ Favorite Summer Camp’ for 2014.


Peanut is Home!

It takes a village...

It takes a village…


This week, the end of an amazing journey came to pass and a new and exciting one began. After a year and a half of working to bring home our adopted son from China, Michael Bennett (nicknamed Peanut), we stepped off an airplane in Austin with him in our arms and were greeted by family, friends, and a community. The feeling was unbelievable and an experience that has helped shape who I am today.

At six pounds and six months old, Michael was placed in my arms at an orphanage we had volunteered at in China those many months ago. Peggy and I had contemplated adoption for several years but I was admittedly reluctant – too old, too tired, too scared. However, the world has a mysterious way of opening up when you allow it to. In those hours of holding Michael, I understood that the need for someone in his life to love him, care for him, and keep him safe was too great for me to ignore. When we left that orphanage, we knew we needed to do everything we could to make him part of our family.

From that point on, the task of bringing Michael home involved countless individuals and parties, from our adoption agency to our friends who provided support to the wonderful doctors that offered medical advice and our guides who directed us in China. So many people rallied around a little boy they had never met, and I am forever indebted to each of them.

peanuthatWhen we received our travel approval to get Michael, one of the things Peggy and I really wanted to do was share that experience with our kids. I am certain that the journey taken with MacKenna, Peyton and Hadley at our side had and will continue to have a profound impact on their lives. Simply experiencing that opportunity, understanding the struggle for so many people in our world and the challenge of the many abandoned and orphaned children will help shape who my kids are. I witnessed them rally around Michael, help care for his every need, and love him with zero reservations. I don’t believe I have ever been more proud as a father.
While in China, we were taken to the orphanage where Michael lived prior to adoption. I will never forget how stoic he was in my arms as we were guided through the facility. I could not help but wonder what emotions he was experiencing then. When we arrived on a particular floor and was taken to an infant and toddler wing, Michael began to straighten up in my arms. We approached a bay of windows and peering in, we viewed rows of cribs in well organized columns. All of the sudden Michael yelled out and pointed through the window. Immediately, several young children Michael’s age stood up in their cribs and waved back at my boy. One even blew a kiss. Michael had been in that room in one of those cribs only weeks earlier. While I was happy to have taken him from his bed, I was haunted by the many left on the other side of the glass, wondering if they, too, would find homes.

Since our adoption journey began, more than a handful of parents have approached us about the idea of adoption for their own family. I understand that adoption is not for everyone, but I do believe more than ever that family should be defined in a much broader sense than the traditional. I believe that our capacity to make a home for someone in need is greater than we realize. One orphan is too many. So many of us are so blessed and have so much to give while so many kids are longing for a family just to give them a home.

So the new journey begins.

The guy that swore off never changing another diaper after three kids is now knee deep in wipes and Pampers. The guy that focused on getting his three kids through college is thinking preschool again. And you know what? It’s all good. Michael Bennett has made my life more complete than ever, my family has come together with greater purpose and love, and little Peanut from a far off place has already given me more than could ever imagine.

If You Want to Change the World, Begin with Kids

“…if you want to create a world that is rooted in kindness, honor, truth and justice then begin with your kids.”

I have to admit, I try not to consume too much world news. It focuses too heavily on death, destruction, and all that is negative in the world today. Unfortunately, the world can be a very cruel and unforgiving place, and nowadays we seem to be chronically tuned in to horrendous scenes in Syria, Ferguson, Paris, the Congo and Columbine (to name a very few). It seems almost inescapable at times. While I don’t believe in hiding from the atrocities surrounding me, I also don’t expect the problems of the world to be fixed by others.

So many of us expect that the ills of the world to be undone by our elected officials, our military, and our heads of state. True, they play an important part, but I believe that permanent change for the better begins in our own homes, in our own schools, and even in our own camps. I am a firm believer that if you want to create a world rooted in kindness, honor, truth, and justice, you begin with your kids. That, in turn, means it all begins with parents, teachers, counselors, and your network of friends and family.

This grassroots view of changing the world is a central theme in my own organization, Kidventure, and a driving force for what we do at camp and why we do it. There is no doubt that camp provides our kids with the opportunity to be active, have fun, and learn a ton. Just the thought of summer elicits images of exploration, discovery, new-found friendships and adventure, but there is a much greater theme that should be at play and a more important intentional focus. Camp provides a comfortable and fun environment for kids, meaning we have a unique opportunity to teach them some of life’s most important lessons.

Taking the time to be deliberate in our actions is paramount to our children growing up to do the same for others. The power in teaching kindness and goodness in your kid isn’t that he or she will grow up to do the same, it’s that they will grow up to teach others to do the same. It is the exponential factor that will change our world and will lead future kids to not pick up arms against each other and to accept others for who they are.

The Unpredictability of Life and Crib Building

'Great' Question

‘Great’ Question

At 46 years old and with my first-born heading off for college this fall, the last thing I had expected to be doing over the holidays was putting together a baby bed.

Earlier this year I shared with readers our plans to adopt a little boy in China. Peanut is the name we affectionately call him, because he was so small when I first held him in my arms over a year ago (a wee lad at just six pounds at six months). Since then, we have fought with paperwork, embassies, governments, agencies, each other, and our patience in order to bring him to his new home in Austin, Texas. This past week, I brought that fight to the crib in preparation for our family of five to grow to six.

Peanut’s paperwork has been expedited recently and we will meet with our adoption agency this Thursday to plan our travel to China to be united with my son. At 46 years old, I feel like a first-time dad all over again. All this contemplation of a new child and my place along the space-time continuum has caused me to evaluate my perception of life in general. I would like to imagine that ‘life’ is a series of well-planned events that fall neatly into place due to my actions. I would like to believe that the road ahead of me is predictable and one that is paved by cause and effect. Thankfully, it’s not. In fact, life is the most unpredictable and unimaginable journeys, and to embrace that is a weight thrown fast off my shoulders. At 46 years old, I am blessed to have had my road detoured and I am a better man for it.

Very soon, my wife, three kids and I will make the journey to China. We will set out to unite with a boy who was once left alone and abandoned. In a strange twist of fates and happenstance, I ended up at an orphanage in Xiamen 16 months ago to volunteer for a couple of days. There, in the corner of a small room filled with other abandoned babies, was a little fellow who could not be consoled and who cried with little pause. Because life is unpredictable, I was asked to hold him and perhaps because I held him in just the right way, he stopped crying. And for several hours that I had not planned for, I fell in love with a son that I never imagined I would ever be a father for.

Last week, I got that crib put together and in proper working order. When I finished I took a brief moment to admire the bed and chuckled at the prospects and the unpredictable journey ahead. Now I am ready to place my son in that crib, to bring him home to his family and to look forward to being a 46 year old father, once again.









When Family Happens










I have a chicken. I like to raise a couple of them because they provide us with fresh eggs and great fertilizer for the garden. Normally the chickens are pretty harmless creatures. But I’ll get back to the chicken shortly.

I have a family. We like to get together as much as possible, which doesn’t seem to be all that often these days. Nevertheless, the stars aligned this past weekend and, because my niece had a state running event in the Austin area, all my siblings, their kids and my parents landed here. Awesome!

After the event, we all met up at the Shady Grove for what was an absolutely beautiful lunch together on a beautiful day — 72 degrees, sunny, the kind you fall back on in your memory when its 115 in the shade and there’s a swimming pool in your shorts. Everyone was really enjoying themselves and having a genuinely outstanding time. After a couple of family pics, we decided to keep the day going and return to my house for a few moments before the crew split up and traveled back to our own homes. A good rule of thumb in life should always be to ‘leave on a high note’ and, when family is concerned, ‘get while the getting is good’.

Upon arriving at the homestead, everyone gathered in the yard. They commented on the gardens and the cute new Great Pyrenees puppy. That’s when I had a bad idea.

Now we come back to the chicken. I thought it would be a good idea to place the chicken on my sister’s head, because no matter how old you get, when your sisters are around, you simply revert to being a brother. I did so, and everyone laughed and took pics. Then, I perched the chicken on her shoulder. Like an overstuffed parrot, she roosted there, and my sister was being a great sport about it. But then I noticed the chicken turning her head and focusing in on one particular place, behaving in a way generally reserved for spotting a bug on the ground or catching sight of a worm in the soil. That chicken turned her head and, with her beady chicken eye, looked longingly into my sister’s eye. Before I could yell out, “It’s going to peck your eye”, it did.

Perhaps Jenny’s eye looked wet or tasty, but in an instant, my poor sister dropped to the ground, clutching her eye, the chicken flapping away in fear and my family retreating to her side.

Yep, bad idea.

I’ve visited emergency rooms before due to a variety of injuries to myself and my kids. I’ve easily explained broken bones and cuts to the skin to the doctors in the ER, but never have I had to explain that my chicken poked my sister’s eye out. And yes, I had to explain it more than once. Family creates enough drama on its own without throwing an eye-pecking chicken into the mix. Far be it from me to introduce a cock fight with my sister’s eye ball on an absolutely beautiful and harmless day, but there you go. That’s what brothers do. I will say, after the painfully long hospital visit, the pecked eye only sustained some abrasions, normal vision, and a tetanus shot. In the end, we laughed and I apologized more than a few times.

My sister was quite understandably mad at me, but the whole incident has made for a family story we’ll tell at holidays for years…perhaps over roasted hen.

Sorry Jenny. Love you.


Risk Should be Child’s Play


Let your kids take some reasonable risks

Just last week, I was invited by a local middle school to speak to 8th graders on the topic of risk. A fitting audience, since I consider the middle school years a important ‘crossroads’ where the idea of risk is heavily contemplated on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, the idea of risk has taken on a negative meaning in our culture today. Most children are warned that risk taking will lead to failure. Too many parents hover over their kids in hopes of preventing any kind of failure and limiting the opportunity for their children to take some needed risk.

Yet without risk, each of us are doomed to live a meager life, never to realize our incredible talents and limitless opportunities that exist inside of us. Risk provides us with the chance to test ourselves, to stretch our abilities and it offers a healthy platform from which we grow. Without the opportunity to take risk, we and our children severely limit our growth and potentially create an unhappy existence for ourselves.

All too often though, it is the fear of failure that gets in the way of parents allowing for risk. Which, if you think about it, is a huge problem in and of itself. You see, I believe the greatest lessons learned are the ones that come from failure and not success. Failure is an inevitable consequence of the human condition. In other words, we all fail. As parents, teaching our children to rise from failure is just as important as teaching them to be a gracious winner.

So let your kid take some reasonable risks. Here’s why:

1. Risk Taking Builds Confidence

Taking risks teaches that we can all achieve even when it’s a little scary. Confidence also comes when we fail and realize that we can get back up and do it again. Both the success and the failures of risks have the potential to build confidence and character in your kid.

2. We Learn From Risk

Learning about yourself sometimes comes from uncomfortable places. It is there that we are stretched, we face our fears and we persevere. Give your kids some opportunity to risk something, then talk about the results and what they learned about themselves.

3. Dreams and Risk Go Hand in Hand

Nothing in life worth having comes without risk. If you tell your kid to chase their dreams, they will have to be comfortable taking risks and you will need to allow them to do so. Understand that allowing your children to take small risks when they are young will empower them with an important tool they will use to chase down those big dreams.

A few days after my presentation at the middle school, I received a packet of letters from the kids I spoke to. The letters were filled with risks each kid wanted to take now. Some wanted to try out for the dance team, others to be part of a mission trip or join the volleyball team. Each hadn’t done so yet because of fear.

I am constantly amazed by the potential of our kids. They have so much to give and demonstrate. As parents, we must provide them with the tools to do so. Give your kid the chance to risk. In doing so, you will teach them that life opens up to more than they could imagine.

Theodore Roosevelt once said, “Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.”

Well said Theodore.


Bringing Home Peanut

We're growing

The McDonell’s are Growing

Last October, my wife and I arrived at an orphanage called Future Hope in Xiaman, China. We had traveled 16 hours with a good friend of ours who introduced us to the orphanage.  Over the course of two days we played, held and cared for some of the most beautiful kids I have ever seen.  Most had medical challenges of one kind or another, most had been abandoned.

On that second day, there was an 8 month old boy crying in the arms of one of the orphanage employees.  He had recently had surgery and was having a difficult time getting along.  Something about that cry or perhaps his need  for consoling drew me in.  I asked to place him in my arms and for next few hours I just held him.  I had a hard time pronouncing his Chinese name so I called him Peanut, because he was just so small.

Sometimes life presents you with something you would never expect.  Sometimes your path in life intersects with something much greater than you could have ever imagined.  It is at these intersections in life that we realize that there is divine reason for being.

One year later, after tons of red tape, paperwork and the help of many parties, I am proud to announce we are bringing home our new son, Peanut.

Two weeks ago we were formally matched with the little boy whose life intersected ours and in hopefully just a few months we will travel back to China and bring him home.   I hope to write more about the journey and share my thoughts about adoption and being a father again. I wish I could share some of the images of Peanut (which he will have a ‘real’ name) but for the protection of him and all kids in care, I can’t.  Although if I did,  you would think he was pretty stinking cute.

For now we will wait and hope the the ‘powers that be’ push his file through quickly so we can bring him here with his big brother, sisters and two really blessed parents.

We’re coming Peanut.

Online Cyberbullying Just Got Way Easier

yikyak2My kids’ school district brought to our attention a specific social media app that has filtered down from college campuses to our High School and making its way to Middle School.  The app can be used to harass other students and staff and in some cases an insidious tool for bullying. Its name is Yik Yak and it could be on your kids device.


About Yik Yak


From Eanes ISD:
“Yik Yak is the latest in a line of social media apps using location
services to post messages to those around the user. These
messages are anonymous, but they are not untraceable. This app
has had many issues across the country at both high school and
college level. While Yik Yak claims to have set up a Geofence
(blocking cell data) around our schools, there are cases where
students have been able to go out of range to post their messages.
Here are some steps you can take as a parent to identify if this app
is a problem for your child and what you can do to prevent its use.!

If your child has the app, you can search what Yaks they have posted by clicking on “Me” and “My Yaks” inside their app. This will show you what they have posted, but know they can delete their yaks. However, you can see if they have ever posted on Yik Yak (even if they deleted the posts) by checking their “Yakarma” points in the upper left corner. By default, it’s set to 100. If they voted on a y!ak, posted a yak, replied, or shared, the number will change.!”

Next Step

If you find that your kid has been using the app, I would suggest you open up a dialogue and find out why they want to use it. It is probably a good idea to delete the app off their phone. If you don’t see the app, but suspect it may have been downloaded, you can also check in the Updates section of the App Store under “Purchased” on your child’s phone. All apps ever downloaded are stored in there.

A Bigger Issue Is at Hand

But while deleting the app is a fix for the time being, the bigger issue for our kids is that social media and the myriad of tools to utilize it can hurt them (and others).  NOTHING on the internet is really anonymous or temporary.  Another reason why if your not talking to you’re teen on a consistent basis your not doing your job.

One of Kidventure’s goals is to promote positive opportunity for our kids to shine light on the negative stuff that brings us all down. If you want to learn more about Yik Yak and the serious issues associated with its use please read 3 Things Kids Need to Know About Yik Yak.


It’s Time We Start

The following post is taken from the Keynote Address to Kidventure employees at 2014 Orientation



Time is this crazy abstract thing.

It organizes our day and it defines our physical perimeters. It tells us when to wake up, go to work, take a pill and watch our favorite TV show.  Time is evenly divided and partitioned into 24 hourly segments in a given day, seven of which in one week, 365 in a given earth year.

Yet, while we can track time to pinpoint accuracy, what we do in that allotted time is as variable and unpredictable as we allow for it.  Quite the paradox.

Recently, time has been on my mind quite a bit.  Perhaps that is because of the 20 year watermark in both my marriage and company.  Perhaps that is because the jet lag associated with flying back and fourth to China and the effects it has had on my body. Or, perhaps it’s just because I am getting older in time and it’s on my mind.

Nevertheless, each year, I deliver a keynote address to 300 or so employees of Kidventure to mark the beginning (in time) of a new camp season.  Highly motivated teachers, education students, coaches and genuinely great people come together as we kick off the new camp season.  About a week after that address, each of those team members will welcome campers at one of our 20 or so camps as counselors, directors or support staff.  My purpose at this important event is to bring everyone together, to provide a collective purpose and directive for the new camp season and to inspire them to join as one to make a profound difference in the lives of the many children they will encounter this summer.  

Why should this matter?  It matters because time presents us with an opportunity.  I have no control over when the moon rises or when the sun sets, but I do have control over what I make of that time. We can choose to waste time or make the most of time. I can be time strapped, time tested or even timeless. I can be out of time or on time. In other words, there is a lot we are because of time, but your life and mine will not be defined by time. Rather, your life, and you in fact, will be remembered by what we did with time.

Between that moon and sun, I can shape my world and those around me.

EstradaTwo weeks ago, Kidventure lost one of its own to the hands of time. In years, Evie Estrada was 25. He left us at a certain hour of a day at a specific time. Evie served as a counselor and director at Kidventure, a US Marine, a teacher working towards his master’s and a position as Vice Principal. Most importantly, he was a father and a husband. Along with every other director and camps manager this Spring, Evie was training and preparing to lead his camp.  In this case, that camp was Camp St. Theresa.  Anyone who knew him always found him smiling, energetic and ready to play.

In his service to America, Evie fought for our freedom on distant shores.  At home, he fought for children.  Evie’s time was filled with so many endeavors and the kind of endeavors that made those around him great. I choose not to think of the short amount of time that Evie had on Earth, but rather to focus on what he did with that amount of given time. No doubt Evie will be missed, but more importantly, he will be remembered.

Each of our employees at Kidventure is presented with a signed  document outlining an agreement between Kidventure Incorporated and said employee.  Some employees might read that agreement and ascertain that they will be performing a job, for a monetary rate during a specific time.  But, our employees understand that what they are really being given is not an employee agreement , but a unique opportunity.  And not just any opportunity.  I would contend that this opportunity has the potential to alter the lives of people around them, to provide confidence to a kid who fears the world, to give hope to those that are being abused at home, to provide courage to those that are timid and happiness to those who are depressed and sad.  I would also contend that in doing so, they have the opportunity to change themselves just as powerfully.

Time is a crazy, abstract thing.

It marches on without failure and interruption. Somewhere along this vast line of time, each of us have been given a chance to experience life and ‘make our mark’.  We can choose to focus on the time, however little or too much we have.  Or, we can choose to focus on taking whatever time we are given and making the most of it for those around us and ourselves.  We can stop worrying so much about what we can’t control and start doing what we can.  To understand this is to truly understand our purpose and to live it is truly what life is all about.