Optimism…what does it mean to be optimistic in a healthy way?
Do we want our kids to go through life ignoring the negatives and possibly living in denial of realities? Or do we want our kids to have a realistic perspective on the struggles of living, while keeping their chins up?
Definitely the latter. Put on your rose-coloured glasses folks!
Every coin has two sides. That’s a reality. What we focus on, the positive or negative side, is our choice. This is the lesson I want him to learn. It’s not an easy one, and it takes a great deal of practise. (I didn’t really figure it out until my early 30s!)
My thinking is that if we start working on building optimism early, Onetime will have a better chance of this kind of thinking becoming a habit of mind for life. That’s why this week’s Teaching Kids About Character: An Alphabetic Series topic is O is for Optimism.
As usual, after reading my way around the parenting expert world, I have compiled a list of things we can do to encourage this positive trait!
1. Model Optimism
First, we need to recognize that OUR attitudes (optimistic or pessimistic) are probably the single biggest predictor of how our children will come to think about life.
According to Diana Loomans, author of What All Children Want Their Parents to Know: Twelve Keys to Successful Parenting, a study by Loyola University, showed that pessimistic kids are more likely to come from homes with pessimistic parents and vice versa. If you know you need to work on this area yourself, check out Peter McWilliams’ book You Can’t Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought (The Life 101 Series).
I read it in my mid-2os and it changed the entire way that I viewed life and the struggles we go through. It convinced me that we can each choose how to view the bad things that happen to us, and that can make all the difference with our happiness.
2. Frame Our Kids’ Struggles as Opportunities to Learn
Okay – I want you to humour me and try this exercise. Make a T-chart and list all the bad things that have happened to YOU in your life on the left side. On the right side, beside each disappointment and struggle, try to think of something good that would not have happened if you hadn’t gone through that struggle.
It may be an unexpected opportunity arose, or you met someone you wouldn’t have met otherwise, or maybe you just learned a really important lesson about life. I bet you will be hard-pressed to NOT find something positive for each negative event once you get going.
When I first did this exercise in my late 20’s, I was astonished at how easily the positives popped up! What a great lesson for me. Even my biggest disappointment, like not getting into the grad program I wanted, had a positive flipside (I got to tour the country for a year as a singer in a very funky disco band!)
Ever since I first did this activity, I have viewed obstacles as opportunities for something unexpected but good to come! If we believe this ourselves, then we can start to point this out to our kids too.
Now, that doesn’t mean that we discount our kids’ genuine feelings of disappointment and upset when bad things happen, but after acknowledging feelings and supporting them through their upsets, we can help point out things that they may have learned from the bad experiences, or unexpected positives that arose.
Let’s teach our kids to expect mistakes and obstacles in life, to acknowledge them, and then to ask themselves, “What have I learned from this?” Isn’t that the embodiment of optimistic thinking?
One of my favourite kids’ shows for the preschooler crowd is TV Ontario’s “Zerby Derby.” This show features remote control cars and trucks with big personalities that get together each episode to build something in their forest home.
They make bridges, tunnels, docks, and homes while teaching engineering skills. But the best part of the show is the attitude of the characters. They are famous in my house for their catch phrase, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again!”
If we want our kids to persevere through obstacles, we need to show them we value effort, not just success. Countless studies and parenting experts (Alfie Kohn, Faber & Mazlish to name a few) warn parents about the downsides of praising kids for their achievements or successes.
Even telling kids “Good job!” can actually lead them to try less the next time they do that activity! (Read Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes if you don’t believe me!)
How can we avoid this? Comment on our kids’ efforts. For example, “You worked really hard on building that Lego house!” or “You really took your time painting today. You must be proud of yourself.”
Kids can control effort. They can’t always control success. Feeling more in control of your life is definitely a step on the path to optimism.
When we catch our kids expressing negative thinking, we can gently reframe the thoughts for them to model a more positive approach.
For example, when Onetime says, “I can’t do it!” when trying to do up his zipper, or put on his shoes, I will say, “You can’t do it YET!” See how that modifies his negative thought to a positive, hopeful one?
I recently found a fantastic example of this kind of reframing that is being used in a classroom. Here it is below courtesy of Fieldcrest Elementary School.
5. Encourage Our Kids to Be Independent
I wrote an entire post on this not too long ago which you can find here which describes how we can encourage autonomy by providing choices and honouring our kids’ struggles. What does this have to do with optimistic thinking though?
Well, the more dependent kids are on us, especially once they are old enough and capable enough to do things for themselves, the more they learn to be helpless.
No one likes to feel this way. Just think of any time you have been forced into a dependent role. It chafes doesn’t it? And eventually can lead to resentment. It’s the same for kids too.
If we want our kids to think optimistically, they need to be confident that they can do things themselves, and handle age-appropriate situations independently. Give them lots of practice making choices and trying to do things on their own from an early age!
6. Refocus Our Kids’ Anger
After reading Naomi Aldort’s book, Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves: Transforming parent-child relationships from reaction and struggle to freedom, power and joy, I learned that anger is an emotion that stems from feeling helpless. Helpless to control things, or to change things.
Anger is also a feeling that looks for blame. Something or someone else is always the reason for anger. That’s why kids usually lash outwards with words and their bodies when they are angry. They feel they are a victim and are fighting against that thought.
Anger is almost always a secondary emotion. Usually, a child feels hurt, embarrassed, sad, or shamed first. Then comes anger and blame.
By helping kids connect with the other primary feelings that came before the anger, it can help them lose focus on blaming things that are, in reality, out of their control.
Instead, they can focus on moving through the upsets and coming to terms with their reality, however uncomfortable or upsetting it may be. My post Crusing to Mellow: A Roadmap for Supporting Upset Kids describes some different ways you can support your child when he/she is upset.
She suggests labeling the feeling and the reason in a question. For example, let’s suppose that you and your child are at the splash pad and your child wants to stay for longer, but you need to get home to start dinner. Now, let’s suppose after insisting that you go now, your child gets angry and says, “You’re a mean Mommy!” Now you have become the thing to blame for having to go. Oh, fun!
Naomi would suggest saying something like, “Are you disappointed because you wanted to stay longer at the splash pad?” or if your child would find this patronizing, “Oh, you’re disappointed because you wanted to stay longer. I see.” Do you see how these words steer the child away from the blame game into focusing on the underlying feeling? Cool huh?
The big idea here is to help kids see themselves as the cause of their feelings. If they change their focus away from blame, they can feel their upset, accept it, and move on.
7. Practise Gratitude with Our Kids
Part of the reason why it’s so difficult to be optimistic is that our brains are actually physiologically wired to find fault and danger in our environment. At one time, these reactions kept us safe from the giant-tooth tiger and marauding neighbourhood tribes!
In order to change that mindset, we must consciously choose to focus on the positives. Practising gratitude means taking action to purposely look for the upside. Creating dinnertime or bedtime routines that focus on sharing positives from the day is a perfect and simple place to start. Be sure to read my post G is for Grateful for even more ideas!
This is a biggie! Believing that our kids are capable of achieving and meeting with success is one of the best gifts we can give them. It’s also a belief that if expressed enough, they will come to believe themselves. Don’t you hear your parents’ voices running through your head? (Hopefully, they’re saying nice things!)
Barbara Coloroso, author of Kids Are Worth It! : Giving Your Child The Gift Of Inner Discipline, includes “I believe in you!” as one of the handful of things you should make sure your kids hear.
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish, authors of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, discuss the importance of not taking away kids’ hope.
By trying to protect our kids from disappointments or failures, we are sending them a message that we don’t believe in them. They get this message loud and clear. Think about the following examples and the message they send to the child.
“You want to take piano lessons? I don’t think so Johnny. You’re too hyper to sit still in a music class.”
or “You want to pour the milk yourself? I don’t think you can do it without spilling, let me help you.”
Diana Loomans talks instead about holding our kids in a “field of possibilities” where “all things are possible and their highest good can take place.” Isn’t that a wonderful way of thinking about things. A good reminder too.
That’s it for O is for Optimism. For a good summary of research on the benefits of optimism, check out this article on Positive Thinking from The Pursuit of Happiness website. If you recognize that you may need to do a little work on your own sense of optimism, you might enjoy this hilarious article on the ConsciousEd site.
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To a rose-coloured future,
To find all our posts, listed below, be sure to visit the Character Series page.
A big thanks to the PODcast blog for the inspiration for this series! Please check out their photographic alphabetic journey!