The last post was about why we parents should foster optimism in our kids. In a nutshell: there is a close link between how optimistically kids think and how healthy and happy they are—and how they perform academically and athletically, for that matter. This post explains a little more about what it means to be optimistic or pessimistic and so that we parents can better foster optimism in our kids.
Martin Seligman has been doing research on optimism for decades, and his book The Optimistic Child is a great resource for parents. According to Seligman and other researchers, how optimistic or pessimistic we are amounts to how we explain life's events, be they good or bad. There are three basic dimensions to an explanation: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization. The OPTIMISITIC way of understanding why something GOOD happened would explain:
The cause of what just happened as Permanent (so it will reoccur);
And Pervasive (it will affect many other circumstances, too);
And Personal (I made it happen).
On the other hand, the PESSIMISTIC way of explaining why something GOOD just happened would illustrate that:
The cause of what just happened is Temporary (something short-lived caused it – probably won't happen again);
And Specific (affecting only this situation);
And Impersonal (I didn't have anything to do with what happened, other people or the circumstances did).
The reverse is also true when something bad happens. A kid trips on the sidewalk and skins her knee, dirtying her new dress. The pessimist thinks: "I'm so clumsy – I'm always tripping everywhere, and now I look stupid." The cause of her fall is (1) permanent—she sees it as a personality trait, and therefore it is both (2) pervasive and (3) personal. On the other hand, the optimist thinks: "Dang! Someone oughtta fix that crack in the sidewalk!" She's thinking that a flaw in the sidewalk, not her own inherent clumsiness, caused her to trip. That crack is (1) temporary; (2) specific to that moment; and (3) impersonal—she had nothing to do with it.
Growth mindset, praise, and optimism
This seems to fly in the face of an earlier post about praise, as Rebecca points out in her comment. Praise is important for kids, but it really needs to be growth mindset praise rather than fixed mindset praise. The growth mindset puts the emphasis on EFFORT and hard-work as the key to success—research shows that it makes kids more resilient and persistent in the face of challenges. Fixed mindset praise points to inborn traits as the cause of kids' successes, which seems very optimistic because it is permanent, persistent, and personal. But, as I've written about before, fixed mindset praise ultimately makes kids insecure, causing many kids to avoid taking risks (lest they lose their special label). So the key is to keep our praise both growth mindset AND optimistic: focused on effort (rather than innate ability) as well as personal and pervasive. For example, praising my daughter's artwork I could say, "I can tell you worked really hard on that painting, Fiona – your passion for art really shows!" As Carol Dweck, the woman behind all the mindset research, has explained: "When we praise children for the effort and hard work that leads to achievement, they want to keep engaging in that process. They are not diverted from the task of learning by a concern with how smart they might—or might not—look."
Personally I'm not going to worry too much about being optimistic when I praise my kids—focusing on the growth mindset is good enough. I AM, however, going to watch any pessimistic explanations I may have for misfortune or misbehavior: kids really pick up on this. We can teach our children to be optimistic, but remember, the reverse is also true: we can also teach our children to be pessimistic. For example, say my daughter Molly hits her sister, or says something nasty. A pessimistic reaction to this would be, "Molly, why are you so mean!? You are not going to have any friends at school if you behave that way." Assigning her the character flaw of being mean is permanent, pervasive, and personal. Optimistic reaction: "You sure are having a hard time right now, Molly. I think you might be hungry. Please apologize to your sister, and let's go get you something to eat." This makes the bad behavior temporary and specific to the situation—she'll behave better once she's not hungry. Furthermore, the situation will be over with an apology, and it's nothing personal—it's more about her blood sugar than her personality.
A word about genetics
But aren't some kids just born pessimistic or sunny optimists, as Joy asks in her comment? Of course! But genetics aren't everything; in fact, they probably don't account for more than 25% of why a person tends towards optimism or not (according to studies of identical twins reared apart). We want to be careful before we label a child a born pessimist. Although this is our culture's most frequent explanation for why people are the way they are, assigning a negative personality trait to someone is both fixed-mindset and a pessimistic way of thinking (considering something bad as permanent, pervasive, and personal). Better to focus on teaching our kids the skills they will need to overcome pessimistic tendencies, as well as the skills they'll need to lead joyful lives as adults. If you've got a determined pessimist in your midst, I'd recommend Seligman's book – it's got a whole section on changing a pessimist into an optimist. It also gives lots of good tips and exercises for kids at different ages.
Frankly, I think good ol' Pollyannaishness is missing in all this research on fostering optimism in our kids. (Academics tend to eschew anything reeking of Pollyanna; for that matter, many have real disdain for happiness. Word is still not out that cheerfulness and the ability to see a silver lining does NOT equal stupidity.) The other day I was parked in a crime-riddled part of San Francisco, right next to some unseemly activity involving a different sort of crack on the sidewalk. My friend Brett, a self-proclaimed pessimist, started worrying for me about my car. What if someone smashes the window to break in? "Maybe then I'll finally be able to get a new car," I thought out loud. "Geez, you really are an optimist," Brett said, shaking his head. Yup, I really am. But I wasn't always: I have practiced finding the silver lining in things so often that it now comes to me reflexively. And that is something I hope to pass on to my children.
Christine Carter, Ph.D., is a mother of two and the executive director of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley. Find more tips for raising happy kids at greatergoodparents.org.
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