‘I Think I Can’
Hearing your child mutter, "Why bother? I won't make the team," or "It doesn't matter. I can't get an A," can be frustrating for a parent. Children today face enormous academic and social pressure, but an attitude of passive resignation isn't healthy.
Dr. Martin Seligman, lead researcher for the Pennsylvania Resiliency Project and author of Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, describes three benefits of optimism for a 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 Dr. Michael Scheier 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 very 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, parents 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.
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. Discuss internal dialogue and encourage your child to be his own negative thought cop.
Model optimistic self-talk. Talk with your child in the morning about what might happen that day. Perhaps you have an important meeting or are going to a play date together. Share your excitement. Say, "I'll have a chance to present my ideas" or "I might make a new friend." When talking about coming events that concern you, focus on potential joys rather than fears of the unknown.
Make a mantra. In the story The Little Engine That Could, the engine 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 or stuck in slow traffic). You'll end up laughing and show your child you're in the situation together. Social support boosts optimism.
Take action. Try new things, even scary ones. Go someplace new. Cook and eat a new food. Discuss with your child the benefits of being open 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 well. What matters is how kids make sense of undesirable outcomes. Move from global, personal evaluations to more specific, situational ones. 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?"
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 her 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 she'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. Practice the skill in a simple way, then move on to bigger challenges. Reinforce the idea that your child can learn to do just about anything.
Recognize good when it happens. Some emotion researchers believe people are programmed genetically 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 what is going right.
Before bed, play the "three good things" game. Both you and your child list three good things that happened that day 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. Optimists' dedicated, persistent action can change the world for the better.
Heidi Smith Luedtke is a psychologist and freelance writer. You can find her blog on parenting as a leadership experience at www.LeadingMama.com.
Bright Side Books for Kids
"When Pigs Fly" by Valerie Coulman (Lobster Press, 2003). Ralph, a determined cow who wants a bicycle triumphs over naysayers.
"The Little Engine that Could" by Watty Piper (Grosset & Dunlap, 1978). A little blue train climbs a towering mountain others won't attempt to deliver toys to good children.
"Little Liam Eagle" by Nancy McGrath (BookSurge Publishing, 2008). A young eagle bravely soars past his fears with his parents' encouragement.
"Stitches" by Kevin Morrison (Ambassador Books, 2003). Stitches, a baseball, dreams of the big leagues – but a stitching defect sends him down another path to his dreams.
"Because of Winn Dixie" by Kate DiCamillo (Candlewick, 2000). Ten-year-old Opal overcomes sadness and makes new and unusual friends because of a big, ugly dog named Winn Dixie.
"Dare to Dream! 25 Extraordinary Lives" by Sandra McLeod Humphreys (Prometheus Books, 2005). Biographical sketches of famous artists, athletes, thinkers and inventors inspire kids to persist in the face of adversity.