It is wonderful to be back on campus watching the children enjoy this surprisingly warm weather and hearing about everyone’s break. Part of the joy of this time of year for me is the notion that although it is the middle of the school year, the start of a new calendar year feels a bit like pushing the restart button. A new year means new possibilities for doing better. Unfortunately, as time passes and the setbacks and challenges begin to accumulate, maintaining that sense of optimism can be hard for me. Instead of my perpetual resolutions to exercise more and eliminate junk food, I think the most critical commitment I can make this year is to maintain a positive view of the future. I challenge you to also think purposefully about the benefits of positivity.
Scientists agree that maintaining a sense of hope and optimism has many health benefits, including reduced stress, lower rates of depression, and longer life expectancy. Optimists are more resilient than pessimists and approach situations empowered by a sense of their efficacy and capacity to effect change. Optimists do not see failings as permanent, but instead, focus on what can be done differently to have a more favorable outcome next time.
With increased exposure to tragedies, seemingly intractable conflicts, and dire predictions, however, maintaining a sense of positivity about the world and our capacity to impact it is difficult not only for us but for our children. At younger and younger ages, children seem weighed down by a sense of pessimism that can be disconcerting. It is no wonder that we see increasing numbers of children with anxiety issues among even our youngest students.
What can we do to protect and promote a sense of optimism in our children?
Researchers like University of Pennsylvania professor, author, and positive psychology proponent, Martin Seligman, in his book Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life, believe that we can learn to be more hopeful. Parents can help teach their children this important skill by assisting them in countering the negative thought patterns and internal conversations that can lead to a sense of pessimism. They suggest:
- When something challenging happens, calmly help your child reflect on the situation. Model an approach that avoids anger and blame.
- Consider all the facts fully and help your child identify those places where they made choices and/or had control over the situation. This will help them to see the possibilities for different outcomes and limit their thinking through a lens of negative absolutes.
- Help your child to put the situation in perspective to lessen fears and restore hope. Help them see problems as temporary setbacks rather than evidence of perpetual doom.
- Engage them in problem-solving to sharpen coping skills and promote empowerment. If you can help them see that they have the ability to resolve situations, they will also feel more optimistic.
- Limit constant complaining and encourage expressions of gratitude. Constant complaining contributes to a perpetually negative attitude.
- Encourage your children to engage in an internal dialogue that emphasizes their strengths and capacity to overcome obstacles to improve their self-esteem and thus, their sense of optimism.
If you are interested in reading more, you can check out the following resources on the study of optimism and advice on how to raise optimistic children:
- Psychology Today - 6 Steps for Teaching Your Child Optimism
- Common Sense Media - How to Raise an Optimistic Human in a Pessimistic World
- The Pursuit of Happiness - Mindfulness and Positive Thinking
- Harvard Health Publishing - Optimism and Your Health
- PBS Parents - Encouraging Optimism in Children
Each successive generation hopes and expects that the energy, enthusiasm, and ingenuity of the next generation will push society toward positive change. I am pinning my hopes on them to solve the challenges we will leave behind. As the song goes, “I believe that children are the future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.”
As we all think about possible new year’s resolutions, the ultimate in optimistic thinking, I invite you to join me in helping our children develop a more hopeful view of themselves and the world. Children empowered with the skills to make change coupled with the belief that it is possible, cannot help but make the world a better place.
In the spirit of my new resolution of increased optimism, I remind everyone of my office hours on Wednesdays from 8:30 to 9:30 and hope that you will find the time to stop in to say hello, ask a question, or share a thought. I will miss tomorrow (January 9th and January 30th) because of off campus commitments, but I look forward to seeing you on a Wednesday sometime in the future.