Is your family generally optimistic?
In today’s anxiety-inducing culture, optimism can be elusive — especially for kids. Fortunately, a new book titled Making Lemonade: Teaching Young Children to Think Optimistically can help parents nurture their children’s sense of optimism from an early age.
Laura Colker and Derry Koralek are early childhood educators who begin their book with a hopeful premise: optimism is primarily a learned way of thinking, not an inborn mindset. Genes account for “about 25 percent of our optimism … the other 75 percent is determined by environment, social support, and learned behaviors.”
Colker and Koralek recommend parents foster an “optimistic explanatory style” at home. They explain that “if we think a problem will have far-reaching, long-lasting effects, we have a pessimistic explanatory style.” Hence, pessimists often use words like “always” and “never.” Conversely, if we believe “a problem is temporary and has only localized negative effects, we think optimistically.”
So how can parents foster an explanatory style, or self-talk, that is optimistic?
One way is to challenge a child’s “thinking traps,” which include jumping to conclusions, making assumptions and catastrophizing. Catastrophizing is “assuming the worst-case scenario is in place or exaggerating the likelihood that something bad will happen or exaggerating how bad it will be.” The authors provide an example: “Bobby accidentally knocks the basket of collage materials on the floor. He thinks [or says], ‘The teacher is going to be really mad at me. I’ll never get to make things again.’”
Ideally, parents in this situation can notice the pessimistic explanatory style and intervene. Encourage children to “dispute negative thinking and substitute pessimistic thoughts with flexible, optimistic ones. … Whenever you hear a child expressing pessimism (‘I can’t do it’ or ‘No one wants to play with me’ or ‘I miss out on all the fun’), it is time to have a conversation.”
Parents can also slow a child’s thinking and put challenges in perspective.
Help a child stay in the present with a problem, not forecast negatively into the future or return negatively into the past. Gratitude is another way to use the past to appreciate the present. The authors suggest making “gratitude journals a part of your daily routine. Children can draw something they are grateful for while you write in your journal about something you appreciate.” Or as a family try to “pick a time every week to sit down and talk about your good fortunes.”
Optimism learned is optimism modeled
Perhaps most important, parents should try to model optimism as much as possible. The authors suggest having “a lighthearted approach to everyday family problems: ‘Whoops! Bowser grabbed tonight’s dinner off the kitchen counter. We’ll just have to have breakfast for dinner tonight. Who wants to help make the pancakes?’” If you can’t achieve lightheartedness during challenges, at least try to stay neutral and quiet (as my father often did) instead of venting pessimism and self-abuse.
Another strategy is to replace your own negative thoughts with positive ones. Do this aloud “so your child can hear your thinking: ‘I thought Hazel the puppy had taken my slippers, but then I remembered I had put them in the closet.’ When your child does this too, comment on what you saw or heard: ‘You were going to say, ‘Oh no,’ but you changed it to ‘Oh well.’ That’s positive thinking!’”
Granted, it is difficult to model healthy self-talk and avoid thinking traps all the time. But to dispute pessimism, tell stories of problems overcome in your own past or your child’s past. And if you overreact or catastrophize, return to the incident later and put it in context, perhaps even laughing about it in hindsight.
When my oldest daughter was quite young, she said: “Dad, I’m a little bit big and a little bit little.” The same can be said for most problems—depending on how you look at them. In other words, don’t let a little picture become The Big Picture. Or as Steve Gross, CEO of Life is Good Kids Foundation, says in Making Lemonade: “There’s no use being pessimistic. It wouldn’t work anyway.”