Cincinnati Family Magazine

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April 18, 2024

I Think I Can: Raising Optimistic Kids

While genetics DO play a role in determining kids’ attitudes, there is good evidence that we can help kids look on the bright side more often.


momanddaughter.pngAre you frustrated to hear your child mutter, “Why bother? I won’t make the team” or “It doesn’t matter. I can’t get an A?” Children today face enormous academic and social pressures, but an attitude of passive resignation isn’t healthy. Martin Seligman, Ph.D., lead researcher for the Pennsylvania Resiliency Project and author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life (Vintage; $15) describes three benefits of optimism you’ll want for your child: Better health, greater academic and extracurricular performance, and the motivation to keep trying when times are tough.

Optimists experience less physical distress in challenging situations than pessimists and have stronger immune systems, according to 25 years of research conducted by Michael Scheier, Ph.D., and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University. Optimists live longer and happier lives. In addition, optimists are achievers. Studies show optimistic youth get higher grades and perform better in athletic competition than pessimists, even when they are led to believe their earlier performance was not so good. These benefits are fueled by optimists’ tendency to give extra effort in challenging situations – optimists believe hard work pays off.

While genetics play some role in determining kids’ attitudes, there is good evidence we can help kids look on the bright side more often. Seligman calls this “psychological immunization” against depression. Here are some strategies to help your child think and act optimistically in today’s pessimistic culture.

“Happiness depends largely on the feeling that what we do matters and is valued by others. Without that feeling, we fear we might be excluded from the group, and research shows that what human beings fear more than anything is exclusion.”

– Bob Murray, author of Raising an Optimistic Child: A Proven Plan for Depression-Proofing Young Children (McGraw-Hill)

Practice thought watching

Learn to spot your child’s negative self-talk. Kids often express negative thoughts aloud: “My hair looks ugly,” or “I don’t have any friends.” Help your child reject unfavorable thoughts. Encourage your child to police his thoughts for “bad beliefs” by acting as his very own thought cop.

Model optimistic self-talk

Talk with your child (over breakfast or on the way to school) about what might happen today. Perhaps you have an important meeting or are attending a playgroup together. Share your excitement with your child. Say, “I’ll have a chance to present my ideas,” or “I might make a new friend.” Don’t be afraid to mention coming events that concern you, but focus on potential joys, rather than fears of the unknown.

Make a mantra

Remember The Little Engine That Could? He puffed faster and harder saying “I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can” until he succeeded. What phrase motivates your family in challenging times? Inject some humor and say your slogan together when times are tough (you’re climbing a big hill, walking a long way or stuck in slow traffic). You’ll end up laughing about how silly you all look and show your child you’re in this together. Social support boosts optimism.


Take action

Try new things – even scary ones. Go someplace new. Cook and eat a new food for dinner. When you meet someone new, be the first to introduce yourself. Discuss with your child the benefits of openness to new experiences. If the new food tastes icky or the new park is less fun than the old one, focus on what you learned. Perhaps say, “Now we know how much we like the slide at our park,” or “Wow, that tasted yucky! But it will make us strong and healthy.”

Change your child’s explanations for adversity

Even for optimists, things don’t always turn out great. What matters is how kids make sense of undesirable outcomes. For instance, “I failed the test because I’m dumb, and I’ll never be good at math” is pessimistic, but “I failed because I didn’t understand the problems and need more practice” allows active coping. To help your child make the switch, ask guiding questions, such as, “What other explanations can you think of?” and “What can you do differently next time?”

“The surest way to promote your child’s lifelong emotional well-being is to help him feel connected – to you, other family members, friends, neighbors, day-care providers, even to pets. A connected childhood is the key to happiness.”

– Edward Hallowell, M.D., child psychiatrist and author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness (Ballantine Books).

Focus on improvement

Optimists know getting better is a process. Encourage your child to adopt this approach by commenting on his improvement, not just the outcome. Say, “You really improved your sprint from the starting line,” or “Your spelling has really improved since the rough draft” rather than focusing on his place in the contest or grade on the report. Follow progress visually using a simple chart. Then, when challenges arise you can point out how far he’s come and encourage persistence.

Be a skill-builder

Kids’ skills develop incrementally. Read a book or watch a video together that teaches a skill your child wants to develop. Encourage him to ask an expert for advice, if you know one. Practice the skill in a simple way then move up to bigger challenges. Reinforce the idea that your child can learn to do just about anything.

Recognize good when it happens

Some researchers believe we are genetically programmed to pay more attention to bad news than good – learning from bad news helps us survive dangerous situations. But focusing on what’s wrong diminishes all that is going right. Before bed, play the “three good things” game. Both you and your child list three good things that happened today and describe how you felt about them. You may be inspired to list three good things you anticipate tomorrow, too.

An optimistic attitude encourages positive action. By encouraging an upbeat approach, you give your child the key to a healthier, happier, more productive life. Isn’t that what you really want for him?

Heidi Smith Luedtke is a mother and freelance writer.

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