Bringing Up Children with Optimism and Hope
Published on: July 11, 2020
Alessandra talks about the importance of nurturing optimism and hope in children and ways to do that.
By Alessandra C Marazzi
It seems to me that in today’s age, a little optimism and hope are badly needed, especially when we are talking about instilling those qualities in the generation of people who will inherit this planet from us.
The case for bringing up children with optimism and hope is strong also for more individualistic reasons: optimists, for example, seem to live longer, healthier lives (partially as an effect of taking better care of themselves), have better attitudes and more positive emotions, develop greater persistence in the face of challenges, recover faster from setbacks and have more positive coping strategies and effective problem-solving skills. As much as we are tempted to dismiss optimists as naive and unrealistic in their view of the world, the fact is that there is “remarkably little evidence that optimists are ever worse off than pessimists” (Carver, Scheier, Miller and Fulford). So why not try to bring a little more of these qualities into our lives and our children’s?
What are hope and optimism? How do we define them?
Meaning of optimism and hope
Let’s start with optimism first. We all have slightly different definitions but one thing is clear: optimism and pessimism have to do with expectations about the future. We may simply say that optimists expect good outcomes. However, at a closer look, what differentiates optimists from pessimists is the confidence that the goal can be achieved, the desired outcome can be attained and we have some power over this. In this sense, optimism is really the opposite of helplessness.
Optimism seems to be more than a genetic roll of dice, and that’s good news – it seems to be a trait that can be learned through our experience. And if so, it is a trait that can also be taught to our children.
Human beings tend to develop helplessness and passivity when they feel they have little control over events. So the first thing we can do as parents is to allow our children a reasonable degree of control over the events in their lives. Choices, autonomy, opportunities to contribute, chances to experience the natural consequences of our own choices without being rescued are some of the building blocks of developing a strong sense of personal meaning and significance in our own world. Movement, outdoor playing, and engaging with our real 3D, sensory-rich life and nature (instead of passively consuming media entertainment) are other ways in which we learn to appreciate ourselves as active contributors to our life.
Aside from finding meaning, another aspect that characterizes optimists, according to some researchers (M. Seligman, among others), is in the way they attribute causes to events. Optimists have a tendency to explain events as transient (it’s going to pass), circumscribed (it only impacts this specific situation) and caused by external factors (it’s not all my fault), which leaves self-esteem intact. Conversely, a pessimist would tend to explain events in his/her life as permanent, global and internal (it will always be this way, my whole life is impacted and it’s all my fault).
The way we provide feedback and the way we communicate to our children has a strong impact on the way they develop explanations for life events and derive perceptions on the self. For example, personal criticism, harsh language, and blaming tend to generate internal explanations for events (“I’m not good”). The use of words like “never” and “always” tends to promote a global-cause attribution, rather than a situation-specific one.
Language that supports healthy perceptions of the self replaces evaluations with factual observations and behaviors. It opens up dialogue and reflection through open-ended questions that start with ‘What?’ ‘How?’ and ‘Why?’. And it uses ‘I-statements’ (e.g., “I have a need for the living room to be tidy,” “I feel very frustrated when my requests are not acknowledged”) and ‘we-statements’ (e.g., “Let’s clean up the wall,” “Let’s think of another solution”), instead of ‘you-statements’ (e.g., “You spilled the water”).
And what is hope? Snyder (1989) defines it as the ability to find multiple pathways to achieve desired goals and to motivate ourselves to use those pathways. So hope is, again, not just an innate trait or a wishful way of thinking. Hope requires problem solving and agency, it requires ownership to find the pathways to a solution, the determination to follow them till we reach our goals and the belief that the goal is within our reach.
To have hope (and optimism), we need a sense of our own capacities, a perception of competency (“I can do it”) and the continuous experimentations with life experiences: we need to link causes and effects to generate pathways that lead to solutions and goals.
How to foster optimism and hope
We can support this by creating opportunities for our children to be exposed to a continuous stream of optimal challenges, for example. Optimal challenges are those that can be tackled with incremental skills to those the child already has and don’t expose the child to repeated failure. Support your child with progress-enabling hints (“hey, I see T-Rex teeth here, I wonder what piece of the puzzle would fit there”), rather than rescuing them with pre-made solutions.
Create an environment where it is safe to make mistakes. Children need experimentation and exploration to learn about causes and consequences as well as to develop their own skills. Help your child work through problems step-by-step, and if a mistake occurs, depersonalize it (talk about the behavior rather than the child) and open up the dialogue with questions. Talk about feelings and needs and ask your child what solutions to the problem he/she may have in mind. Promote constructive negotiations by focusing on the needs to meet rather than the outcome to achieve.
Reivich, Gillham, Chaplin and Seligman created a school-based program (Penn Resiliency program) that promotes seven skills that support the development of ownership, agency, solution-mindset and a positive sense of self: assertiveness, negotiation, relaxation, avoidance of procrastination, social skills, decision making and problem-solving.
Finally, as parents, we also need to be reminded at times that our children are not hopeless and helpless. If we are to communicate with our words and actions to our child that she/he has the power of changing situations and finding pathways to his/her goals, we need to believe it first. Replace the negative labels with positive explanations (don’t internalize), stay focused on the situation (don’t generalize), and bring attention to the process rather than the outcome (outcomes are transient).
Yes, you got it: bringing up children with optimism and hope requires that we develop some of those traits too!
This article was first published in BAMBI News in 2017.
Photos by Mi Pham and Jude Beck on Unsplash.
- Carver, C.S., Scheier, M.F., Miller, C.J. & Fulford, D. (2009). Optimism. In C.R. Snyder & S. Lopez (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Positive Psychology
- Snyder, C.R. (1994). The Psychology of Hope
- Seligman, M. (1995). The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience.
About the Author
Alessandra is a mother of two boys, Leonardo and Matteo. She has an MSc in applied positive psychology and coaching psychology. She is a leadership coach and somatic coach who has moved to Luzern after 15 years in Bangkok. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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