Just as despair can come to one another only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings. –Elie Wiesel
Are our children hopeful? Do they expect good in the world? That things will work out for the best? Optimism is so closely related to happiness that the two can practically be equated. And guess what: optimism is a teachable skill. Hope, faith and optimism are all positive emotions about the future, and so are essential parts of a happy childhood. That is enough for me, but if a happy childhood isn't your first priority for your kids, think about these other benefits reaped by optimistic children. Compared to pessimistic people, optimists are:
• More successful in school, at work, and in athletics
• They are healthier and they live longer
• They are more satisfied with their marriages
• They are less likely to suffer from depression
• They are less anxious
Who wouldn't want that list of benefits for themselves or for their kids?? (If you raised your hand, this is the wrong blog for you!) Research points to three ways that kids learn to be either optimistic or pessimistic from their parents.
(1) Parental Affection. Since I am the huggiest person you'll ever meet, I LOVE that parental affection can influence your kids' outlook on life. (My brother thinks my propensity to stand close and touch the people I'm talking with is indicative of what he calls "underdeveloped personal space disorder". I wonder if I'm inadvertently fostering hope in my friends by invading their space.) The researchers who direct the Penn Resiliency Project at the University of Pennsylvania say that kids whose parents are caring and affectionate are more hopeful. Parental affection and care is—no duh—essential for kids to develop trust in the world. When kids have a secure base in their parents, they tend to believe that the world is a good place. In addition to fostering optimism, this allows them to take risks and explore—another way they learn to be optimistic.
(2) By having the opportunity to take risks and fail. The ability to cope with challenge and frustration—even failure—is also critical for the development of optimism. Research shows that kids who are protected from failure and adversity are less likely to develop optimism. Why? When kids make mistakes and learn from them they also learn that they can overcome the challenges that likely lie ahead. This makes them feel hopeful about the future. However: repeated failures lead to learned helplessness, not optimism, so it is really important that the challenges children face are developmentally appropriate. Too much challenge can overwhelm children, making them anxious and insecure.
(3) Modeling. Pessimistic parents are more likely to have pessimistic children. Being an optimist means having a particular way of explaining events, like "explaining good events in terms of permanent causes," says Martin Seligman, who has studied optimism for more than two decades.
[Optimists] point to traits and abilities that they will always have, like being hard-working, likable, or lovable. They use "always" when they describe the causes of good events. Pessimists think in terms of transient causes. "I was in a good mood," or "I practiced hard this time." Their explanations of good events are qualified with the words, "sometimes" and "today," and they often use the past tense and limit it to time only ("I practiced hard this time.") When children who believe their successes have permanent causes do well, they will try even harder next time. Children who see temporary reasons for good events may give up even when they succeed, believing the success was a fluke.
More than modeling how you interpret events in our own lives, kids model how you interpret events in their lives. In other words, kids are more sensitive to the feedback they get from their parents ("you are so lazy" or "that won't work") than they are to their parents' explanations about their own life events. This means that when we criticize our children we make them more vulnerable to pessimism. This adds a new dimension to thinking about how we praise kids. In coming weeks, we'll learn more about what optimism really is and how best to teach it to our kids.
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