Teaching Children Optimismby Nicola on 2012-05-01
How to Teach Children Optimism
By Dr Nicola J Davies
Following from the previous article on ‘The Benefits of Optimism and how to Cultivate it,’ this article addresses how to teach optimism in children. After all, the earlier we learn optimism, the better!
To the optimistic adults the world is a great place, and the future is always something to look forward to, no matter how dismal present circumstances might seem. Since optimistic people are also generally healthier and happier than pessimistic people, it is believed that there is much value in teaching optimism to children. Below are some examples of the benefits optimism has for children, and how parents and care givers can instil and cultivate it in children.
Why is Optimism Important for Children?
Fortunately, optimistic feelings and thoughts come naturally to most children. Children know that expecting the positive makes life more enjoyable and them happier. Researchers in the field have shown that, like adults, optimistic children perform better at sport, work, and in school. This is due to the tendency to persevere when they encounter obstacles, which makes them more likely to achieve success than those who give up easily. It’s also an attitude that contributes to physical and mental health, reducing the development of anxiety and depressive moods. Relationships with parents, teachers, peers and co-workers are also more satisfying when children focus on what is good about others.
Possibly the most significant benefit of adopting an optimistic outlook is that it instantly promotes a positive mood. How people feel about themselves, others, and the situations they find themselves in are always colored by their mood and the corresponding thoughts they create. These influence the nature and quality of the interactions a child establishes, determining whether they draw other people and positive events towards them. When they face difficulties and need assistance, optimistic children are more likely to get others to assist them, because of their attitude. Furthermore, teachers generally respond more favourably to children who offer their classmates assistance and encouragement with schoolwork.
Children who are optimistic don’t give up easily when it comes to challenges at school or at home. Unlike those with pessimistic outlooks, they don’t indulge in catastrophic thinking when facing obstacles, believing that they’ll never get a task right, or expecting the worst possible outcomes. Instead, they tend to step back, think things through and evaluate situations, trying alternative approaches until they succeed. Studies with school going children show that optimistic children talk with enthusiasm about the future, and they have clear ideas as to what they would like to achieve. They also expect to fulfil their hopes and reach their goals. Since their resilience in the face of challenges, both inside and outside the classroom, has worked in the past, they expect it to help them achieve future goals. In turn, this can help children realize their educational or life ambitions.
Another advantage optimistic children have over pessimistic children is that they don’t feel overwhelmed by challenges. Since they will inevitably have to face many challenges throughout their childhood and as they grow up, this is an invaluable asset. Rather than becoming overwhelmed, they rely on their rational thinking ability, motivated by a positive outlook, to come up with solutions they know are there. When solutions aren’t immediately forthcoming, they aren’t afraid to ask for assistance either. The result is that they don’t feel out of control, or succumb to stress and anxiety easily.
Optimistic children share the belief that successful outcomes are largely the result of individual actions and efforts. This makes them more responsible and pro-active in seeking information to help them achieve positive outcomes. So, if health generates feelings of well-being and happiness, they would avoid risk-taking behaviors that might compromise their health.
Strategies for Teaching Children Optimism
Although hereditary factors help to make up some personality attributes, optimism can be taught explicitly to children and, with practice, optimism can become an habitual way of relating to life and others. Children also implicitly learn it from parents, teachers, and other care givers. The best way to foster a sense of optimism in youngsters is when parents themselves practice it. This would support their verbal teaching, and foster the development of the habit more quickly, efficiently, and permanently.
One way to teach optimism is to help children experience that in every negative situation there is something positive to be learned. For example, if it rains and your child wants to play outside, point out what’s great about playing indoors. Children often discover forgotten toys or board games, or find extra time to read or do schoolwork. Even illness can be turned into an opportunity to draw attention to the value of receiving care and attention from playmates, thereby helping to foster better friendships.
When your child has accomplished something, give them credit for it. This will help build self-esteem, as well as foster optimism. For example, let your child know you think they got good grades on a test because they are smart, or that they are hard workers. Do so consistently, and this will lay the foundation for perseverance in the face of future difficulties.
It’s also necessary that children experience what it’s like being successful, especially when they face obstacles. One way to do this is to allow children to help with simple household tasks like picking up clothes, sweeping the floor, or sorting the laundry. It’s important that they actually do this themselves, with a parent offering support when needed. Make a point of thanking your child for their help, letting them know how well they did, and how much you appreciate their support. This allows them to see the positive (i.e. praise) in the negative (i.e. tidying their room).
Acknowledging and validating a child’s negative feelings are part of teaching optimism. If they’re unhappy about missing a birthday party, or not being able to play with a friend because the latter doesn’t seem interested, acknowledge their feelings. Also allow them to talk about these feelings. After having listened empathically, this can be a good time to teach learning to come up with alternative explanations or solutions to a question. Allowing children to express their feelings helps them to process it consciously, rather than denying it. Finding alternative explanations helps them to put things into perspective, and also teaches the value of seeing situations from another person’s perspective.
Some optimistic parents keep a “Grateful” poster board on the kitchen wall, and encourage their children to paste or draw pictures, or write anything on it to express their gratitude about something on a particular day: getting good grades on a test; playing in the snow; or, being given a gift. It’s important that parents participate though, and it also helps to turn this into a game about who can come up with the best picture or best grateful saying. This helps children to stay focused on what’s positive about life, and contributes to cultivating an optimistic outlook.
The best way for children to learn about being optimistic is when they experience it in their immediate environment every day. This means adults should pay attention to how they portray the world to children, especially how they explain events and circumstances. The manner in which they talk to children - the words adults use and the manner in which they say it - influence what children believe about themselves and the world. When parents notice each other’s pessimism, they ought to alert one another about this, and work on cultivating their own optimism. This way their children will also benefit.
Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein: Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child.
Glynis Hannell: Promoting Positive Thinking: Building Children's Self-Esteem, Self-Confidence and Optimism.
Martin E. P. Seligman: The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience.
Dr Nicola Davies is a Psychology Consultant and Freelance Writer with an interest in health and well-being. Her publications can be viewed at www.healthpsychologyconsultancy.com. Alternatively, you might like to sign up to her free blog:http://healthpsychologyconsultancy.wordpress.com/