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The Optimistic Child: Raise Your Children To Be Optimists

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Updated June 18, 2014

The Optimistic Child: Raise Your Children To Be Optimists

The optimistic child can have a happier life.

The benefits of optimism have been proven many times over by research. Optimists enjoy better health and increased longevity over pessimists, experience less stress, and achieve more in life. While much of our personality traits are inborn, you can influence your child’s tendency toward optimistic or pessimistic thinking: optimism can be taught! Here are some ways you can help instill this valuable trait and raise the optimistic child:
Difficulty: Average
Time Required: 18 Years

Here's How:

  1. Help Them Experience Success: Children develop self-esteem and optimism by experiencing success, even in the face of some challenges. So, starting young, let your child do things for themselves (with you in a supporting role rather than doing for them), and acknowledge their success. For example, even if it takes more work on your part, allow small children to take on household responsibilities like sorting socks, putting their toys away, etc., and acknowledge their efforts.
  2. Give Credit For Success: When your child faces a success, help them see how they contributed to it, and label those actions as strengths. For example, “You did well on your test. You’re really smart!” or “You’re a hard worker to have been so prepared!” You don’t need to tell them something’s great when it isn’t (children can sense false praise), but giving them credit for their own accomplishments builds self-efficacy and contributes to optimism.
  3. Look For Future Success: When dealing with successes, focus on what traits in the child made the success possible, and examine other successes that can come from these traits. Going back to the example of the high test score, you may mention that the strong work ethic and intelligence that went into the successful test can help them reach other goals. You might explore what some of their goals for the future could be, whether it’s to be an astronaut or to do well in college.
  4. Don’t Praise Indiscriminately: Optimism researcher Martin Seligman believes that telling a child that everything they do is great—rather than helping them experience real successes and persist in the face of reasonable obstacles—puts the child at a disadvantage, creating an overly strong self-focus and actually making them more vulnerable to depression! So validate that success, but do acknowledge when their efforts aren’t successful as well. Children learn to see through empty praise.
  5. Validate, But Question: When your child faces failure or negative situations, validate your child’s feelings, but ask questions that can cause them to see things more optimistically. For example, if another child doesn’t want to play with them, talk about their hurt feelings and let them express themselves. Then ask what other friends they may want to play with. This helps them process (rather than deny) their emotions, but puts the situation in perspective.
  6. Remember Success in the Face of Failure: When things go wrong, acknowledge your child’s feelings, but also help them focus on other successes they’ve had, look at how things can go better in the future or under different circumstances, and move on. For example, “I see you feel disappointed in your score. Maybe you’re having an ‘off’ day. You usually do better, and I’m sure you’ll do great next time.” And then get involved in another activity, or practice for future success.
  7. Look For “Opportunities To Improve”: One tenet of optimistic thinking that parents may take issue with is where optimists downplay their responsibility where failure is concerned. While it does instill optimism to look at external circumstances that may have contributed to things going awry, it’s okay to also assess what your child can personally do in the future to do better next time. Just approach it as ‘looking for opportunities to improve’ rather than a self-blame session for your child.
  8. Look For The Bright Side: Help your child see that there is good and bad in every situation, and make a game of looking for the silver linings in seemingly negative situations. For example, if your child can’t play outside because it’s raining, look at the positives of indoor play, or project what success may come from having extra time to study. Even a broken leg can bring the fun of having friends sign the cast! The game can get silly, and that’s okay, but it’s a good practice to get into.
  9. Don’t Use Negative Labels: Correct unacceptable behavior, but don’t label your child with negative labels—ever! Children tend to live up—or down—to our expectations, so if you say, “Jack’s our whiner,” or “Lucy’s our shy child,” what may have been a passing phase becomes a more permanent identity. This is much more damaging to a child’s self-concept than some parents realize, and it perpetuates the very behavior you find so objectionable!
  10. Make an Example of Yourself: Children watch us and see us as constant examples, whether we like it or not. The good news about this is that we can teach by doing. Practice optimistic thinking yourself. When you achieve success, don’t downplay it with false modesty, but give yourself credit for a job well done. When things go wrong, don’t catastrophize; put things in perspective.

Tips:

  1. As you're teaching your child optimism, it may help if you know whether you're an optimist or a pessimist. This quiz can help you assess that.
  2. It's never too late to become more of an optimist! Learn how to be more of an optimist and you can better model that thinking style for your family.
  3. Have fun with it!

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