If you’re a certain age, you can remember an old Disney movie, “Pollyanna,” starring a Hayley Mills. Mills plays a young orphan girl with an annoying habit of always looking for the good in situations and people. This is very annoying to her aunt and her aunt’s crotchety neighbor, and in fact the whole town. After all, what’s the point of always being happy?
In fact, the movie spawned a common saying, “Don’t be a Pollyanna” – that annoying person who always sees the good in everything. In this light, optimism, that ability to look on the bright side, is a negative thing. Don’t optimists understand that sometimes things just aren’t that great?
Well, of course they do. Defining “optimism” as only focusing on good things is limiting. After all, nobody wants to go through life with rose-colored glasses, if only because denying negative things can make others feel as though their feelings aren’t valid.
But optimism is more than “rose-colored glasses.” True optimism admits that sometimes bad things, negative things, occur. But instead of being overwhelmed and depressed, and optimist learns the lessons present in the situation and makes plans for next time. It is Edison’s famous line: I have not failed. I have found 10,000 ways that do not work.
In this sense, optimism is not the belief that everything is great, but that everything will turn out for the best. Think of these two reactions to a failed test:
- I’m stupid. I’m never going to pass math. I’m doomed to failure.
- Well, this test didn’t turn out like I wanted. I’ll study harder so that next time I’m better prepared, and will get a better grade.
Which attitude is likely to result in a positive outcome? Which is more optimistic? The second one, of course. It’s important to understand that optimism doesn’t deny or ignore less than desirable outcomes. However, instead of allowing negativity to dominate your thoughts, optimism helps you understand what needs to be done for a better result the next time.
So how do you help kids, who inevitably live in the very immediate world of “now,” foster that sense of optimism that will help them move beyond the immediate “bad” and build for future “good”? Here are a few tips.
- Eliminate real problems. Everybody gets blue now and again. That feeling that you’d rather crawl back into bed on Monday morning, instead of get up and face another week of work or school. It’s a perfectly normal feeling – as long as it’s temporary. If your child seems out of sorts, depressed, or unusually moody, take the time to make sure real problems don’t exist. Changes in mood sometimes indicate problems with bullying, friends, or difficulty in the classroom. If real problems exist, listen and work with your child to come up with a solution. There is no point in painting over real problems with a false sense of optimism. Children are smart enough to realize that if something isn’t done, no amount of optimism will change the future – and that will just undermine your attempts to foster a positive outlook.
- Talk about the positive. We spend a lot of time dwelling on problems. After all, those are the things that need work, right? But talking only about negative issues will hamper attempts to foster a sense of optimism, because the negative things are always thrust to the forefront. Take time to talk about the positive aspects of the day. For example, over dinner, have each family member talk about one positive thing that happened that day. These things don’t need to be “big” or “important,” just honest. Perhaps your child did well on a test, or was complimented by a friend or teacher. Maybe the sun was out after a long period of dreary, gray weather, or your child saw the first robin of spring. Whatever it is, pull these things forward and talk about them. Just don’t throw the bad stuff under the carpet. Make sure negative feelings aren’t bottled up and repressed, which will sabotage your attempts at optimism. Remember, you have to take life’s “roses” as well as the “thorns.”
- Use positive praise. Children thrive on attention, negative or positive. If you want to cultivate positive behavior that is the behavior you need to praise. Pay attention, and when your child reacts positively, reward him. The reward doesn’t have to be big, like a present or treat. Sometimes a simple smile is sufficient. A lot of kids, especially tweens and teens, don’t think adults notice them. Take the time to make them know that you do, even a simple, “I know that game didn’t turn out the way you wanted, but I’m proud of the way you played and how you handled it.” Knowing that will help kids make a positive outlook part of their every day routine.
- Plan for success. Having a goal is great, and believing it will happen is awesome, but all of that is useless if no action is taken toward achieving that goal. Sit down with you child and come up with concrete steps to take in pursuit of her goal. Personal achievements are great at fostering a healthy sense of self. And don’t forget to celebrate the small steps toward the big goal. For example, if your child’s goal is to win a state championship, stop and celebrate the smaller wins along the way that will help him achieve his ultimate goal.
Remember, Winston Churchill said, “Success is the ability to go from failure to failure without diminished enthusiasm.” A keeping a sense of optimism is the first step to maintaining that enthusiasm.
A software technical writer by day, Mary Sutton is the mother of two teens and has been making her living with words for over ten years. She is the author of the Hero’s Sword middle-grade fantasy series, writing as M.E. Sutton, and The Laurel Highlands Mysteries police-procedural series, writing as Liz Milliron. Visit her online at www.marysuttonauthor.com.