What do we want most for our kids? Well-being, close relationships—and better grades would be nice, too. Research points to a single factor that can play a role in achieving all these types of big dreams: optimism.
Optimism is not smiley-face balloons and tickled Elmos but rather, experts believe, a practical skill that can help kids negotiate a lifetime of challenges. “Optimism is a positive feeling about the future—a confidence and faith that things will work out,” says Christine Carter, Ph.D., a sociologist at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents ($15, amazon.com).
Bolstered by that confidence and faith, optimists see their troubles as temporary and don’t take them personally. For example, if a friend doesn’t sit with her on the bus, an optimistic child will conclude that her pal just wanted to catch up with the girl three seats back. “Optimists don’t attach big explanations to little events,” says Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., a psychologist in Philadelphia and the author of Freeing Your Child From Negative Thinking ($16, amazon.com). “They don’t supersize problems.”
In contrast, “when something goes wrong, a kid with a pessimistic mind-set thinks that means everything will go wrong—and that she must have done something to make it happen,” says Chansky. In the bus example, a pessimistic child will think, She must hate me. I’m so boring. No one ever wants to be my friend.
Both optimism and pessimism can become self-fulfilling prophecies, says Suzanne Segerstrom, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington, and the author of Breaking Murphy’s Law: How Optimists Get What They Want From Life and Pessimists Can Too ($15, amazon.com). “Unless you believe that things can turn out well, you probably won’t do anything to make them turn out well,” says Segerstrom, especially if the work that needs to be done is difficult, tedious, or demanding (like buckling down to study math or, for a shy child, making friends). That means optimists are more likely to make an effort and thus more likely to meet with success, which in turn leads to feeling more positive about their future. Pessimists don’t build up this momentum. And when they do experience a win, they’re more likely to chalk it up as a fluke.
So what if your child is a gloomy Eeyore? The silver lining (and you knew there was one) is that optimism isn’t a fixed personality trait but a teachable strategy that improves with practice. Here’s how to get started.