My teacher friend, Barbara, retold the wonderful story of a little boy in her new Pre K class. She was reading the class a particular book the plot of which was getting tense. The little guy interrupted her reading and announced, “Let’s look on the bright side, guys. I’m pretty sure there’s going to be a good ending to this story!” Call it half empty-half full or just plain having an optimistic attitude, this little boy had it.
The optimistic child (and adult, for that matter), is the one who can tolerate a struggle, who has the “let’s keep trying” attitude, who maintains a goal of a good outcome, of success. It is such an essential and powerful characteristic, that optimism, but how do our kids get it?
The way we respond to our children, in direction, in scolding, and in praise, directly influences the degree of optimism they possess. Our optimism and confidence in them bridges the gap between their struggle and their success. (And remember, it is through struggle that learning happens.) Think about some of the things parents typically say to children:
“I told you so.” That tells the child the you are right and he is wrong. Why should he even try to do things for himself. No reason for optimism.
“I’ve told you 1000 times to ….” That tells the child that he has failed before and he’ll do it again. Definitely no optimism.
“Don’t do that. You’ll get hurt.” The message there is that I don’t trust you, your judgement, nor your ability to take care of yourself. I am not optimistic about you.
Using phrases such as these actually undermines the child’s sense of his own competence. How can he be optimistic about being successful?
Parents can encourage optimism in the child in the way they frame their admonitions, directions, and praise.
Work with your child to solve his problem, rather than telling him how to do it or blaming him for not getting it right, ask, “How do you think you might solve this problem?” That not only puts the responsibility where it belongs, but lets him know that you think he can solve it (Optimism). Then if you must, give help in very small increments, just enough to jump start the process.
Honor the child’s need to try things himself and be successful. “Climb as high as you feel safe” tells the child that you trust his judgement and that the responsibility for being safe is his.
Support your child rather than giving him the solution. “You are really working hard on that math problem. I can see your wheels turning. You have almost figured it out.”
Model an optimistic attitude. “I am sure you will finish that puzzle. You are such a hard worker and are so patient. You are almost there.”
Learn to stay out of the child’s work (whether a project or homework) and don’t underestimate him. Not only does it send the message that you know that he will succeed by himself, but he just may surprise you.
Optimism is powerful fuel. Fill your child up! A tankful goes a long way.
Betsy Brown Braun is the bestselling author of the award-winning Just Tell Me What to Say (HarperCollins 2008), and You’re Not the Boss of Me (HarperCollins, 2010), a bestseller in its fourth printing. A renowned child development and behavior specialist, popular parent educator, and mother of adult triplets, she is a frequent speaker at educational and business conferences, has been a guest expert on Today, the Early Show, Good Morning America, Fox News, Fox and Friends, Dr. Phil, Entertainment Tonight, Rachel Ray, and NPR, and has been cited in USA Today, the New York Times, Family Circle, Parents, Parenting, Woman’s Day, Real Simple, and Good Housekeeping among countless other publications and websites.