We all want our children to be happy and successful.
And, throughout our life, we learn a thing or two about how to help them get there.
However, there’s often a gap between what we know to be true from our own experiences and wisdom and actionable advice. One great example is the idea of developing an optimistic outlook.
Optimism is critically important across all domains of life. It’s the fuel of persistence. It keeps us going when things are down, and it encourages us to take risks and believe in ourselves when we might otherwise cower and hide.
However, for most of us, “look on the bright side” is the full extent of our education on optimism. It’s hard to know exactly what makes someone grow up optimistic or not and, therefore, even harder to teach this to our kids.
As a parent, I want my kids to have an optimistic outlook, and one that has hope, and that makes sense, where good does triumph over evil and it’s not cynical, and it’s not snarky.
– Dee Bradley Baker
So how do we help our kids become more optimistic? How do we turn “looking on the bright side” from a cliche to a real, conditioned behavior?
Fortunately, there are several things you can do as a parent to condition optimism and help your kids develop an optimistic outlook.
1. Let your child take risks
According to Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, “kids who are protected from failure and adversity are less likely to develop optimism.”
When we allow our children to set out on their own and challenge themselves, they learn that they have the capacity to overcome challenges. The key is to provide just enough challenge that they can accomplish a task, but not too much so they’re repeatedly failing.
It turns out, all those hugs and kisses do more than just comfort your child, they play an important role in the development of a more optimistic attitude as well.
A team of researchers from the Penn Resilience Project who studied the effects of affection in parent-child relationships found that children raised by parents who were more caring and affectionate turned out to be more hopeful and optimistic.
Parental affection helps your child build trust in people, which helps your child develop a more optimistic attitude. So, make sure to dish out those hugs and kisses regularly.
3. Give sincere praise every chance you get
In addition to affection, praise is also vitally important if you want to raise a more optimistic child. When your child does a great job, let them know every chance you get.
However, here is a word of warning. Martin Seligman, author of The Optimistic Child and “the father of positive psychology,” says that constantly telling your child they did great as a habit can actually backfire and do more harm than good.
Kids come equipped with a pretty good B.S. detector early on, so if you just keep telling them, “great job, baby!” every single time they perform even the smallest task and regardless of whether they actually did do a good job, they begin to sniff it out and know you’re not being completely sincere.
For that reason, look for opportunities to offer sincere praise. This goes great with the first point in this article, because if you place your kids in more situations where they can overcome challenges you’re offering yourself more opportunities for sincere praise.
My oldest son is the competitive type and has a tendency to be pretty hard on himself. When he’s having trouble grasping some part of his homework he’ll often drop his pencil, put his hands against his forehead, and say something like, “I can’t do this!”
When it comes to challenges such as these, optimism is the belief that there is a way for you to overcome the situation. So, if you give your child a method for overcoming challenges, you help them develop a more positive attitude.
“Change your child’s perspective,” says psychologist Andrew Shatté, Ph.D., who has created several programs designed to teach kids how to overcome challenges. Shatté suggests using “reframing” to shift how your child is looking at a situation and how they react to it.
Going back to my son with his homework, I’ll often remind him that I also had a hard time with that same subject in school and that it’s normal for it to be hard. I often tell him, “There’s a reason it’s hard: you’re learning something new. Your work is supposed to be a challenge because it’s unfamiliar to you. It’s your job to overcome it.”
Another route I’ll take often is to remind him just how far he’s come: “Remember when you were learning how to read single words? Now you’re flying through a book in a matter of minutes. It takes time and you’ve made huge progress.”
When we’re knee-deep struggling with something, we often lose sight of everything else and become absorbed in it. However, by reminding children of just how far they’ve come, you start to condition them to reframe their challenges in similar ways, leading to a more optimistic outlook and productive mental process.