As soon as parents bring a new baby home, they begin to look for all the milestone “firsts”—rolling over, sitting up, eating solid food, walking, talking. The list goes on and on until it’s filled with even more advanced educational objectives.
Can your child identify the letters of the alphabet and their sounds? What sight words do they know? Do they understand the days of the week and the months of the year? Are they at grade level in mathematics?
Naturally, parents want to make sure their children aren’t “behind” in school.
But no one seems overly concerned with whether their kids learn to be optimistic. There’s no spot for that on childhood report cards.
In today’s Covid-obsessed world—where negativity and fear seem to have free rein, where childhood depression and anxiety rates are skyrocketing—why aren’t we more concerned with teaching our kids how to avoid pessimism, shrug off cynicism, and embrace a positive outlook?
Because long-term, learning to be optimistic is a necessary skill.
A skill hard enough to master as an adult. How in the world can we instill and teach it to children?
As with so many things, recognition is key. Begin by placing optimism on the list of important things everyone needs to learn. See it as an important element in your arsenal for taking on daily life.
Then make it daily—like brushing your teeth, or combing your hair, make optimistic thinking a regular discipline.
Guard Your Input
Eliminate sources of unnecessary negativity. One easy place to do this is with television news. There are lots of ways to remain aware of current events without the evening news giving everyone indigestion as it blares out a steady stream of gloom and doom during the dinner hour. Same with the late night news sending you off to sleep with stories of disaster and despair. Switch channels away from the network evening news and 24-hour cable news providers.
In your real world relationships, do your best to limit personal exposure to the Debbie Downers and Negative Nellies who are out there. Instead, work to surround yourself with optimistic people. Encourage your children to seek out friends who have an optimistic outlook, then make a point of doing the same with your own network of friends.
We Find the Things We Look For
As you eliminate the negative, remember to accentuate the positive. The best way to find positive things is to look for them.
Try this experiment: Head out into traffic, intent on looking for yellow sports cars. Chances are you will soon notice a yellow sports car. Or two, or three. By the same token, if you decide to look for red pickup trucks, you’ll suddenly discover the roads are filled with red pickup trucks.
The same idea holds true when you practice gratitude and optimism each day.
During supper tonight, ask everyone to list two or three good things that happened to him or her during the day. At bedtime as you tuck your children in for the night, ask them what their “best thing” was today. As they slumber off into dreamland, they’ll go to sleep with a good thought in mind.
The best part of finding what we look for is that the habit actually builds on itself. When children know they’ll be asked, “What good things happened to you today?” they’ll begin to be on the lookout for good things. And as a consequence, their list of good things will get longer and longer.
As Martin Seligman, author of “Learned Optimism” and “The Optimistic Child,” says, “When we take time to notice the things that go right—it means we’re getting a lot of little rewards throughout the day.”
Spread the Sunshine
Once you cultivate an optimism in your own life, begin to foster optimism by sharing a smile or offering a compliment to a random stranger. It may feel a little weird at first, but after a while it becomes second nature.
See someone in the aisle of the grocery store wearing great shoes? Tell him. Love a sales clerk’s truly spectacular manicure? Tell her. Notice someone with a fabulous hairstyle? Tell them.
Pay for the ticket of that person behind you in the drive-thru line. Make yourself the sunshine in someone else’s day, then pay attention to how he or she reacts—and how you feel. Positivity and optimism can be the best kind of contagious.
Perspective—Use It or Lose It!
When bad experiences come around (because they inevitably will), working to put things in perspective helps. Sure, you woke up on Thanksgiving morning with no water in the house: but you still had seven hours before the relatives arrived; but the plumber answered his phone; but the water was back on by noon.
So your kid wrecked the car: but no one was hurt; but the insurance company paid out; but you were able to replace the car with something better. Adding that little “but” helps take the focus away from the negative and replace it with a more optimistic interpretation of events.
As you learn optimism, remember it’s okay to acknowledge the negative things that happen in life, but there’s no need to dwell on them for days on end.
Change is the nature of all life, so good times will come around again, too. And those good times show up more quickly when you’re looking for them.
Benefits of Learning Optimism
And it turns out that teaching yourself and your children to walk the path of optimism has many benefits beyond improving your mood on a daily basis. There are actual health benefits to being optimistic, including an increased life span with lower rates of depression and distress, better cardiovascular health, and improved resistance to routine illnesses like the common cold.
People who have learned optimistic thinking perform better at school, in social settings, and in professional arenas. They also tend to push through difficult times more quickly.
Ernest Shackleton, who led the ill-fated ship Endurance on an Antarctic exploration mission that left him and his 27-member crew stranded in the ice, said, “The quality I look for most is optimism: especially optimism in the face of reverses and apparent defeat. Optimism is true moral courage.”
So be strong and courageous—learn optimism.
This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.