Challenge to find optimism

Published 4:31 pm Saturday, October 25, 2014

QUESTION: I’m concerned that my child is becoming a pessimist. She often says things like, “Nothing I do ever works.” What can I do to change her attitude?

ANSWER: Pessimism is really a problem of learned helplessness. Adults can help children develop optimism by showing them how to master challenges. The first step in helping children acquire the optimism necessary to know they can succeed in life is to be sure they understand that no one succeeds all the time. We all fail some of the time. However, success can be achieved in spite of a first or second failed attempt.

Secondly, an optimistic person looks at problems as opportunities. Optimists don’t think everything’s great. They see things quite realistically, but they have learned to deal with frustration and move toward a desired goal anyway. Most optimists also believe that at least some other people will be supportive and helpful in overcoming the challenges of life. Adults have the responsibility of being available to offer timely assistance and encouragement, while allowing children the space to struggle with a problem long enough to have the personal victory of overcoming it.

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In “The Optimistic Child,” author Karen Reivich offers the example of 6-year-old Ian, who watched his 9-year-old sister build a spaceship with a LEGO set. Ian tried to copy his sister’s creation, but his sister worked so fast that Ian fell behind. His spaceship began to fall apart.

In this situation, the first temptation for most parents is to give false compliments. “I think your rocket looks great, Ian!” Unfortunately, Ian is likely to respond that his rocket is “stupid” and that he “never gets anything right.” The second temptation is to try and make the situation better by saying something like, “Here, give me the pieces and let me make it for you.”

In reality, rather than give false compliments, we better support our children by telling them the truth. “When you’re 9 like Rachael,” Ian’s dad could have said, “the things you build will be sturdier. When Rachael was your age, her spaceships looked just like yours.” Dad might even build his own rocket that is similar to Ian’s and, if Ian built three more, they would have created their own space station.

As parents and grandparents, we are most helpful when we have realistic expectations, compliment the process rather than the outcome, and share that every success will be balanced by a new problem that requires a solution.

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