Kids who get positive messages are more likely to succeed.
Children are born optimists. Until the age of nine, kids have an impressive capacity for positive thinking – a kind of built-in ability to suspend disbelief even in the face of blatant fabrications, such as a fat man in a red suit carrying gifts down their chimney or a fairy with a fondness for loose teeth.
Yet as they grow older, children may behave in ways that suggest they are not optimistic. They may worry too much, believe others think the worst of them, avoid risk, or fear new situations. This pessimism doesn’t come naturally, it’s learned – from parents, teachers and personal experiences. Though growing up is inevitable, becoming a cynic is not. As adults, we can proactively nurture the natural optimist in every child.
Optimism is good for everyone
Some of us could argue that the world is a very different place for kids today than it was for us, full of new and complex dangers – like AIDS and internet pornography – that we never had to worry about. Yet this is not necessarily a good reason to become pessimistic about the ultimate fate of our society.
Though it is important to keep our kids safe, it is equally important to protect their sense of wonder, innocence and hope for the future. There’s tons of research telling us optimists are better off than their more negative counterparts. Optimists get better grades at school, win more often in sports, do better in business and politics, are less prone to depression, are more successful, are healthier overall and live longer.
What do optimists look like?
Optimists aren’t just those annoyingly happy people on TV who respond to every situation with a big, shiny smile. They are everyday folks who approach challenges with a ‘can do’ attitude. They believe adversity is temporary – arising from specific situations – and can be overcome with practice and persistence. Optimists see challenges as opportunities and are better able to learn from their mistakes. The proverb about the half glass of water illustrates
this well: although the glass is actually both half empty and half full, the optimist will always choose to see it as half full. Optimism is all about perception: optimists are quicker to see the value in what they have, rather than focusing on what they don’t have.
The power of positive ‘feeling’
True optimism is not only about ‘mind over matter’ or ‘looking on the bright side.’ Positive thinking is an important step, but ultimately, our perceptions are fuelled by belief, and belief comes from the heart. When the heart is burdened, it is hard to see good in any situation. When kids are able to lighten their emotional load, the result is a more positive outlook on life.
How can we help our kids to lighten that load? By letting them vent their feelings. All emotions are valid, even strong ones like anger or frustration. Rather than ignore, smother or resist powerful emotions that arise from difficult situations, it is good to validate them, allowing the child to feel and then release those feelings – by talking, crying or perhaps hitting a pillow. Once they have vented, children will regain their natural optimism. Helping them practise getting over the small things – like a bad day at school or an argument with a friend – sets the tone for dealing more positively with the larger issues that can arise on the rocky road of life.
Children mirror what they see, hear and feel from parents, extended family and teachers. They also develop a positive or negative take on life based on how family crises, such as divorce, sickness, death or financial struggle, get resolved. When kids begin to think negatively, their language becomes pessimistic. This can lead to a self-fulfilling prophesy of bad results. Statements like, “I’ll never get this right,” or “Nobody cares about me,” are learned reactions to daily experiences. Children who believe they are able to achieve something will be more likely to succeed than those who approach the same situation with a negative attitude.
Optimism is a powerful enabler. A positive attitude not only sparks a desire to make an effort and persist when the going gets tough, but also helps children to see the good that comes out of a ‘bad’ situation. Reinforcing positive messages with our children connects optimism with competence and ultimately with success and happiness.
Delivering these messages to our kids regularly will help them stay optimistic.
- Focus on the positive: reinforce what is working
- Every obstacle is an opportunity to improve your situation
- Everyone makes mistakes: learn how to do it differently next time
- Adversity is temporary: change is inevitable
- Attend to the moment and the future will take care of itself
Are you an optimist? Sign up to take the happiness test at: www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu