Raising an Optimistic Child
Young children are innately optimistic, and experts say that it’s up to us as parents to help them hold onto it throughout their teens and into adulthood.
Your baby is a born optimist: he believes he can crawl, walk and talk without your help. Your toddler optimistically believes she can tackle any challenge, and will get up and do it again if she doesn’t get it the first time.
And although six-year-old Joe may not be the smartest kid in his kindergarten class, he still believes he’ll be a doctor or an astronaut when he grows up.
In a book called Raising an Optimistic Child , authors Bob Murray and Alicia Fortinberry discuss a study by Kristi L. Lockhart of Yale University in which she says that “Children up to about age seven are wildly optimistic.
“This innate optimism emboldens children to tackle new challenges, learn new skills, risk new relationships, and persevere.”
When Do Things Change?
"Between ages seven and 10, a more balanced but still positive outlook is meant to take over, although the child’s genes will play a role in determining whether she is more drawn to risk or caution,” say the authors.
Then, when your child hits his teens, he is more prone than ever to suffer depression because he starts to doubt his strengths.
The way to turn this around, says psychology Professor Martin Seligman (author of The Optimistic Child ), of the University of Pennsylvania, is to teach your child to recognise how they respond to adversity. For example, a child might interpret being left out in the playground as, “They don't like me. I am a loser who is not worth liking”. This sort of thinking can lead to a permanent, negative view of the world.
A Bold New Experiment
Professor Martin Seligman and a team from the University of Pennsylvania have been working with Geelong Grammar School in Victoria to establish a new program for their curriculum.
Using Professor Seligman’s Positive Psychology principles, the aim is to:
1. Help students identify their signature character strengths and;
2. Increase students’ use of these strengths in day-to-day life.
“In addition to these goals, the intervention strives to promote resilience, positive emotion, and students’ sense of meaning or purpose,” Professor Seligman adds.
Principal of Geelong Grammar, Stephen Meek, says the curriculum focuses on students from Year 9 to Year 12, but the thought processes are also being incorporated across the whole school.
“It’s a way of deepening their understanding of people and how they work together,” he says.
“And from the reactions of teachers to the program, we know we are giving our students greater resilience and the positive ability to work to their strengths.”
Can Parents Learn Too?
Geelong Grammar’s principal Stephen Meeks says he has been encouraged by the enthusiasm of students and parents to their pilot program.
“We want to spread this message so that it can be incorporated in other schools around Australia,” he says.
For parents to make a difference, he suggests looking at Professor Seligman’s ideas, where you’ll find tips like these:
- Every night for a week, write down three things (big or small) that went well that day and why. Teach your child to do this, too.
- Work out your best strengths and use one strength each day (discover them with a signature strength test on Professor Seligman’s website.
In Raising an Optimistic Child, authors Bob Murray and Alicia Fortinberry also offer some ways to help your child have an optimistic outlook (known as the HAPPY principles):
- Have a Go – break tasks and games into manageable pieces so that she can succeed. Never let her know you are disappointed if she fails.
- Accept both Success and Failure – make a note of all the times you say “always” or “never” in one day, and then think about the message you’re passing on.
- Practice – allow your child to watch you practice and persevere at activities you enjoy. This will teach her to do the same.
- Plan for the Best Outcome – for children older than four years, encourage them to think a situation over, and show how you opt for future rewards that add real value to your life rather than immediate gratification.
- Getting to Yes! – Optimism and resilience arise from succeeding even after setbacks, say Murray and Fortinberry. The key is to revel in the Yes! experiences through life.
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