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.
Eliminate the Negative
Listen for absolutes. Chansky advises parents to keep an ear out for words that signal all-or-nothing thinking: “This always happens.” “I never do anything right.” Chansky will often ask young patients to sketch a “sometimes shaker” (shaped like the kind used for salt) as a silly reminder to season exaggerated pronouncements with less extreme words, like sometimes: “Sometimes my friends are nice to me.” “Sometimes our team wins.”
Help your child reframe setbacks. If he is upset about flubbing a spelling quiz, your first move should be to acknowledge the pain of disappointment. “One of the most common things I say to a child is ‘I hear you! I get that,’” says Lynne Kenney, Psy.D., a pediatric psychologist in Scottsdale, Arizona, and the author of The Family Coach Method ($18, amazon.com). The next step: Get a sheet of paper and write his negative thoughts on the left. (“I stink at spelling.”) On the right, jot down more neutral ways to talk about what happened. (“Spelling is a challenge, but I’m a good artist.”)
It’s also important to propose steps that he can take to get improved results. “If a child is feeling down because he’s having trouble at school, you can’t just tell him to think differently,” says Kenney. “You also have to help him develop the skills to do better.” Suggest taking a practice test the night before the next big exam or running through tricky words together in the car. Once a kid experiences success, he’ll be willing to try harder, because he has learned that his efforts can pay off. And that may create a springboard from which he’ll launch himself into future challenges.
Praise with purpose. Focus on effort, not achievement, says Chansky. Say something like “I know that project was tough—you really stuck with it!” You want to reinforce the idea that success comes from hard work, a central tenet of optimism. Try to avoid saying, “You got an A. You are so smart!” Your child may conclude that she must not be smart if she ever gets a dreaded B.
Keep your own boat afloat. When kids are prone to doom-and-gloom thinking, it’s easy for a parent to get pulled down, too. “You’re driving home from school and your child is saying, ‘Everything is horrible!’” says Chansky. “So you think, He’s in such bad shape—I must be an awful mother!” Do your best to hit your own pause button, she says: “Don’t look at the problem as big and general and unchangeable. Bring it down to this moment. What do you need to do to help him right now?”
And, well, what if you also tend to be a sad sack? “Be compassionate with yourself,” says Carter, who notes that modeling your own efforts at positive thinking, imperfect though they may be, sets a great example for your kids. Instead of beating yourself up because you got home too late to make dinner, relish the excuse to order in. (Who ever grumbled about a spontaneous pizza night?
Accentuate the Positive
Enlist your child’s imagination. Research has shown that adults who regularly took time to write about their best possible selves—their biggest dreams and goals for their lives—felt more positive and stayed that way weeks later. Kids can do a version of this exercise, too, Carter says. Ask your child, “If you could do anything, what would you do?” (Be a famous artist? A horse rancher? The fastest swimmer in the whole world?) Older kids can put pen to paper; younger ones can dictate a description. “This is not about listing realistic goals,” says Carter. “It’s simply a way to think imaginatively about the future. Every time your child articulates her dreams like this, she’s practicing optimism.”
Start a “happy journal.” We tend to think of early childhood as a time of sweet innocence. But according to Kristin Lagattuta, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis, young children naturally focus on negative emotions (which may stem from a survival instinct to be on the lookout for threats). “Preschoolers will ask a lot of questions about what is making people they see sad or mad,” she says, “but kids don’t tend to ask why people are happy.” When Lagattuta’s older daughter was 3 years old, they created a “happy journal” to shift the focus. Together they listed five things that made her daughter smile each day, such as “getting new ladybug boots and splashing in a rain puddle.” (A potent metaphor for looking on the bright side if ever there was one.) “Recognizing what makes you happy can help foster a more positive expectation for the future,” says Lagattuta.
Sift through experiences. Train your kids to notice the good things that surround them, even in crummy circumstances. When Lagattuta’s son was 5 years old, he severely hurt his ankle on a family bike trip. Strangers then jumped in to offer rides and express their sympathy. “When we talked about it afterward, we liked to focus on all the people who helped,” she says. “It turned the situation from a traumatic event into something positive.”
Revel in anticipation. People of all ages delight in anticipation, which is why some research has found that most of us prefer Friday, with its promise of the upcoming weekend, over the wistful rest of Sunday. So find things to look forward to together, says Carter. Keep a big family calendar of all the fun activities that the future holds (movie night, Grandma’s visit), instead of just dentist appointments, bill due dates, and other must-dos.
Keep at it. Do anything often enough and you’ll progress—whether it’s perfecting your tennis serve or bouncing back from disappointments. “You’re making new neural connections,” says Kenney. Over time, hopefully, your child’s brain gets rewired, so on the next rainy day, he’ll say, “Board games!” not “I’m bored!”
And if at first you don’t succeed, well, you know what to do. “It’s like learning a new language,” says Carter. “Some people are going to pick it up fast, and others will have to practice more—but that doesn’t mean they can’t get there.” Spoken like a true optimist.
Happiness: Nature or Nurture?
Why is one of your kids sitting at the breakfast table scowling at her half-empty juice glass while the other one is beaming at her half-full glass? Even within the same family, genetics can make a difference. A study conducted by the Twin Research Unit at King’s College London, in England, compared large numbers of identical twins (who share all the same genes) with fraternal twins (who do not). The authors found optimism to be about 40 percent hereditary. Still, that’s less than half the story; the rest is a combination of what life throws at you (optimism is hard to sustain for a child suffering from abuse or extreme poverty) and the messages that kids absorb from Mom and Dad. Stuck in a traffic snarl on the way to a dance recital? A pessimistic parent will fume, “This always happens! We’ll never make it in time!” An optimistic one will say, “Don’t worry. I think I know another way.” According to Lagattuta, “kids pick up on situations where there’s a problem and you could go either way in your thoughts about it.” What better argument to put the brakes on brooding?