Teaching Optimism to Our Kids (and Finding It for Ourselves!)
Is there any reason for optimism these days? Is optimism even something we can learn? And if it is indeed learnable, how can we teach it to our children?
If you’ve been following along on the Mindful Return blog, you know I’m all for a good brain re-wiring. And based on what our amazing guest is here to teach us today, optimism is indeed in the category of things we can re-wire.
Today, I’m delighted to introduce you to Laura J. Colker, Ed.D, co-author of Making Lemonade: Teaching Young Children to Think Optimistically. I got incredibly excited when I was introduced to Laura, as she co-created The Creative Curriculum for Preschool, which is the curriculum my daycare used when my kiddos were little. (In other words, she’s an early education celebrity!)
What I love about Laura’s guest post today is not only that she breaks down exactly what optimism is (and isn’t!), but she gives us language to experiment with. Practical and relatable examples we can use. Here’s Laura to share her wisdom on optimism with us!
As we emerge from a pandemic, challenges abound. Some children may be facing academic or behavior problems since being back in child care or school. Many parents find themselves without time to attend to loved ones, let alone themselves. It can pull at a parent’s heartstrings to hear their child lament “I can’t do it!” or “Nobody likes me.” Optimism may be the last thing that you are thinking about as you struggle to be a good parent and make life better for your family.
Yet, I would propose that optimism is exactly what is needed both for you as a parent and for your child who is learning to cope with the world.
Optimism is the expectation that good things will happen—to you, to others, and in the world. It is not, however, a Pollyannaish belief that life is all rainbows, unicorns, and heart emojis.
True optimism is constrained by reality. Realistic optimism is about the ability to acknowledge problems and still maintain a positive outlook. It is the backbone of resilience, providing a lens of hope and positivity.
Hundreds of research studies have shown that optimism benefits both children and adults. No matter what their age, optimistic children do better in school. They are more likely to feel good about themselves, make friends, solve problems, take risks, and learn from their mistakes.
For adults, being optimistic not only makes life easier, it improves both one’s health and quality of life. Optimists, as compared to pessimists, are less likely to become ill. Overall, optimists live nine years longer than pessimists. They also have richer and more rewarding relationships and careers. In addition, optimists are better able to cope with stressful experiences, which is how most everyone would describe daily life these days.
Optimism: Nature or Nurture?
But what if you and/or your children aren’t naturally optimistic and tend to see worst case scenarios everywhere? Researchers say that only 25% of us are natural-born optimists.
The good news for everyone, though, is that optimism is a skill, and like any skill, it can be learned. Parents are in a unique position, in that we can both train ourselves to become optimistic parents, as well as teach our children to think optimistically. Happily, the same approaches work for both us as adults and for our children. These strategies center on reframing negative thinking into positive thoughts.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
Whenever something happens to us—be it good or bad—all of us have self-explanations as to why an event occurred. How we interpret an event predisposes us either to feeling hopeless (lacking control and a belief that things won’t change) or hopeful (an ability to solve problems and plan alternatives).
According to Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, who is a pioneer in optimism research, there are three dimensions that people use to explain both good and bad events to themselves. Known familiarly as the Three P’s, these are:
- Permanence (“How long will the situation last?”)
- Pervasiveness (“How much of my life will the situation affect?”)
- Personalization (“Who or what caused the situation?”)
To move from pessimistic to optimistic thoughts, we need to see bad events as passing, not all-encompassing, nor specifically caused by us. For your child, this might mean thinking:
- “I’m really mad that I can’t yet ride my bike by myself. But if I keep practicing, I bet I’ll get better at it.” (Permanence)
- “Anja doesn’t want to play with me. Maybe I can ask Marta to come over, so I’ll have someone to play with.” (Pervasiveness)
- “I could hardly do any of that puzzle. It must be for big kids.” (Personalization)
Upending negative thoughts takes practice, but it is very achievable. Begin with training yourself before trying to teach your child. You might try using a journal. Each time you experience a problem or adversity, describe what happened as factually as possible. Next, record how you interpreted the situation. Finally, write down what you felt about the situation, and how you reacted to it.
Afterwards, review these entries as objectively as possible. If, for example, only three of the six children who were invited to your child’s birthday party actually attended, did you spend valuable time trying to track down the missing children? Did you write the event off as a failure, because half of those invited didn’t come? Or, did you see how involved the three attending children were as they played with and celebrated your child?
To teach your child to think optimistically, use the same approach you use on yourself. Remember your modeling of optimism shows your child that being optimistic is something that you value. Let your child be privy to your thinking on the subject. For example, “At first I was really sad that we can’t go to Grandma and Grandpa’s for the holidays. But then I thought how fun it will be to open our presents and eat some cupcakes together over Zoom. We can turn this into a holiday we’ll never forget.”
In addition, try these ideas:
- Notice and comment on family members’ efforts to interpret events optimistically. “I totally agree with you that it’s hard getting up so early in the morning. But like Daddy said, it does give us time to get ready and talk with each other over a healthy breakfast.”
- Acknowledge stressful events that affect your family, and brainstorm positive solutions. “I think that we are all feeling very sad that our neighbor Mr. Walker died. Let’s remind ourselves of the happy times we spent with him and how kind he was to us. What did you like best about Mr. Walker?”
- Comment on the positives in daily life. “We are so lucky to have grown these delicious tomatoes in our garden. They taste better than any we could buy.”
- Guide conversations towards positivity. “Your friend Lamar is understandably sad that he broke his arm. What might you say to Lamar to make him less upset? How can you make sure he knows that he won’t have to sit out from playing ball forever?”
Working to get your child and you thinking optimistically is an investment of your time that will have great payoff. Indeed, there is no downside to being an optimist.
If you would like to learn more on this subject, please take a look at my book co-authored with Derry Koralek—Making Lemonade: Teaching Young Children to Think Optimistically. It is available through Redleaf Press or on Amazon.com.
Laura J. Colker, Ed.D., is an author, lecturer, and trainer in early childhood education with over 45 years of experience. She has written and produced more than 150 books, articles, videos, and podcasts for educators, administrators, families, and children. Dr. Colker is perhaps best known as the co-author of The Creative Curriculum for Preschool, which is the most widely used preschool curriculum in the U.S.
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