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MomTalk: Raising Optimistic Children

Fostering a positive attitude in your children, do you teach it or is it part of their personality?

Regina Martine
If life seems jolly rotten, there's something you've forgotten

And that's to laugh and smile and dance and sing

When you're feeling in the dumps, don't be silly, chumps

Just purse your lips and whistle, that's the thing …

Always look on the bright side of life.

I am an optimist. I tend to look on the bright side. I always think that one way or another things will turn out ok and that I shouldn’t dwell on worrying about what I can’t control. Everything might not go as planned, but that doesn’t mean everything didn’t go pretty well. My husband is a pessimist. He always expects the worst to happen. He anticipates tasks will be difficult and fraught with unforeseen problems. I think a tendency toward optimism or pessimism is a part of someone’s personality, hard-wired into who they are. However, a positive or negative attitude; what you do with that tendency to see life as partly cloudy or mostly sunny, can be learned.

I think that if you believe things will turn out well, they probably will. If you believe you will fail at whatever you try, you probably will. My middle daughter, Aimee, seems to have inherited her father’s pessimism and is incredibly hard on herself. She always thinks she will fail (although she never does) so she works and studies and practices until she feels she is prepared. They say that no one plans to fail they only fail to plan. No one can say that about Aimee. She will plan and plan and in the end she will ace the test, or hand in the project ahead of time, or beat her best time at a race. I don’t know why she doubts her abilities, but I love that she takes control of the situation and works her butt off to make sure she succeeds.

Being a pessimist doesn’t mean a person has a nasty, negative attitude about everything, just like being an optimist doesn’t mean that everything is sunshine and lollypops all the time. I don’t think everything is wonderful all the time. Far, far from it. I am well aware of the possible bad outcomes in any situation, but I don’t spend a lot of time fretting and worrying about the “what ifs.” I don’t assume things will go wrong. I expect things to go well. Sometimes they don’t, but the world usually doesn’t end because of it. I tell my kids (and my husband) to control what you can, don’t waste energy worrying about what you can’t. Do your best, and then regardless of the outcome, you can feel satisfied that you did everything you could.

Laurie Hunt
How do I try to foster a positive attitude? I am forever telling my girls “there are no problems, only solutions” – thank you John Lennon!  I try my best to help them see the bright side of things, however, I am only human and there are certainly times where my example may reflect my own crankiness with situations. 

One of my children is incredibly easy going, always happy and her cup is always half full.  She is a free spirit who enjoys just about everything and can have fun anytime, anywhere.  This is who she has been since I can remember.  This is who she is.

My other child has a good attitude a lot of the time but not always.  There are times she can even be a bit cynical.  I can try my best to help her try to see things in a different light but I can’t change who she is, nor would I want to change her.  She is who she is.

If only it were as simple as a parent teaching positive attitude - then all of those parents’ children would have the same attitude about life and they do not.   Children are born with a personality that is influenced by two parents, who are different from each other.  They are also influenced by their experiences they have without us – some spending six-plus hours a day with other adults and children raised differently while at daycare and/or school.  Children are also affected by their socio-economic status, the experiences they are afforded in life and/or the joys and sorrows they experience.

A good example of how other people influence children, even if the drive is there within them, is the story of one of the most inspiring woman in history - Helen Keller.  Keller was left blind, deaf and unable to speak at the age of two.  It wasn’t until she connected with a teacher by the name of Anne Sullivan, who taught Keller how to communicate, that her own persistence enabled Keller to show her abilities.  Keller went on to attend Radcliffe College, become an author, travel the world, campaign for women’s rights, world peace and earn the respect of many during her lifetime (1880-1968). 

While I am sure Keller’s persistence was a part of her personality, she could not possibly have done the things she did without her parents who welcomed Sullivan into their home to help their daughter. Keller could not have done the things she did without Sullivan.  Additionally Sullivan would not have even been a part of Keller’s life if not for family connections and the intervention of Alexander Graham Bell – speaking to the socio-economic status of Keller’s family.

Jillian Sallee
This weekend we were at the Cape and we decided to try to find the entrance to the dunes in Truro.  Knowing how cool this would be for the kids, I had a positive attitude about it, even though we were unsure of where we were going and if it was going to turn out fun.  The kids were skeptical.  To them, it was more time in the car, driving in a place that was unfamiliar to them, and they weren’t quite sure what “dunes” were.  We have little dunes at some of the closer beaches but if that’s where we were going, they were probably thinking to themselves, ‘what a waste of time!’  Ryan was especially crabby about it, and knowing he would be the one who loved it the most; I tried to explain what it was going to be like.  He wasn’t buying it, so I let it go, but I continued to be smiling and excited about our adventure.

When we found the entrance along the side of the road, we had to hike in a little ways, up a very steep sandy hill.  Oh the complaints were coming fast and furious from my little guy now.  This is my little ball of energy and I had to resist the urge to point out that on a not crabby day he could run up and down this crazy hill with his eyes closed!  We reached the top and what lay before us was an impressive and gorgeous amount of sand, formed into peaks and valleys, a scene unlike which even I had never seen before.  The kids immediately took off running from one side of the sand bowl to the other.  Their hair was flying, the smiles were wide, and they had an absolute ball!

On the walk back to the car, Ryan was a chatterbox, talking about what a fun day he had, “funnest day ever” may have crossed his lips.  Instead of an “I told you so” moment from me (which my behaviorist says not to do), we talked about what a positive attitude he now had, how much fun the day turned out to be, how that maybe next time we can look forward to another adventure.  We also talked about what might have happened had we not found the dunes and how that would have been ok too.

Now, that doesn’t mean that next time, the crabby attitude won’t come back but if it does we will continue to have a dialogue about it and model a more positive attitude.  Overall a positive attitude is a choice.  I don’t always have a positive attitude but I can choose to start with one and work from there. Your own personality and experiences play a part in your attitude but trying to teach our kids a positive outlook molds that personality and makes for some positive experiences to outweigh the inevitable negative ones. A child has many important influences in their
lives...parents, siblings, grandparents, teachers, and friends.  And those
are just the live influences; we have television, movie, book and Lego characters to compete with as well! We all have a part to play in forming our children’s attitudes and opinions, I can only make sure that the information my children receive from me is mostly the good stuff!

Melissa Schools
*Sigh*

In many ways, I could benefit from reading what my fellow Patch Mamas have to say more than I feel like I have wisdom to offer on the subject of positive attitude.

Presently, I am tapping out this article on my phone with the Evernote app, one click at a time, as my husband drives our van northward to Maine after a very late night for the whole family. My two older sons are seriously irritated with me for insisting that they wear their seat belts in a way that will actually restrain them in case of an accident. They are suffering from a four hour deficit of sleep, so I understand they are frustrated with the struggle to get comfortable in a mostly-upright position. Well, actually, they are just mad at ME, not the struggle.

But what is present to my mind is the accident from this weekend that totaled my sister's car with my five year old in the back seat. I'm thinking of the highway accident our whole family was in just a year ago Mother's Day. Miraculously, no one was hurt (seriously) either time. 

How does this apply to my struggles with having a positive attitude? 

It really boils down to a lack of maturity for me that can't translate the
rationale behind keeping a positive attitude into action; emotional reaction
clouds my purpose. A "big girl" mama would pleasantly and patiently explain the safety reason for the rule and then artfully distract her disgruntled children from the source of their unhappiness.

But, but, but...I'M tired, and fussy, and pregnant, and, and, and...! So, absent my "big girl pill," I snap at them to "Stop whining and be quiet!" and basically fail to convince with my actions that I love them so much that I couldn't bear to lose them senselessly in an admittedly improbable accident. 

Oh, I have parroted the cutesy preschool mantra, "You get what you get and you don't get upset!" but kids have uncanny ability to cut through the garbage that tries to convince them to, "Do as I say, not as I do." Again:
*sigh*

As a child my mother used to quote this rhyme to me:

There was a little girl

Who had a little curl

Right in the middle of her forehead.

And when she was good,

She was very, very good

But when she was bad, 

She was horrid!

*Ahem* 

So, I confess to my adoring public that it seems as though I tended to make life difficult when things weren't to my liking. I let little stuff get to me and take over my mood for longer than it should. 

It has taken many years for me to grasp that important realization that  anger and victimhood and getting caught up in hurts and slights is such a  waste of life! So in our family, it is our goal to break that cycle of self-centered pessimism. I want to save my kids all that wasted time and raise them to be resilient, happy, positive adults. It will just take a little more effort with me at the helm, being a work in progress myself!

Tasha Schlake Festel
I’ve always considered myself to be a “glass is half full” kind of girl. Despite all of my sarcasm and self-deprecation, I am probably optimistic to a fault, walking around with my head in the clouds, stupid smile on my face, expecting everything to be all sunshine and daisies. Lucky for me, most of the time, I’m right. I don’t know if good things happen because I expect them to, because of how I evaluate them, because I don’t quit until I’ve succeeded, or because I’m lucky. No matter, I feel like things almost always work out for the best. I expect – and usually receive – positive results. Yay!

Along those lines, I expect my kids to expect the best. Thankfully, they wake up most mornings ready to take on the world. They expect the day to be awesome. They expect to be happy. They expect to succeed. I don’t know that they’re even aware of these thoughts. They just are a fundamental part of how my kids live.

So when my kids get all grumpy or moody or Debbie/Donald-Downer on me, I try to cut them some slack. I’ve learned over the years (after doing things wrong for many of them), that validating a kid’s feelings – even when you think they’re silly or inappropriate – is a requirement for successful parenting. I force myself to remember that we all have down days or times of insecurity. Instead of blowing off their “negative” thoughts for fear of fostering pessimism, I now try to listen and help them look at the situation from another angle.

Yes, I try to help them turn their frowns upside down by following two simple steps:

1) Acknowledge validity of frown.

2) Invert said frown.

You may now safely try this at home.

Despite their fundamentally optimistic view of the world, I am always surprised that many of my kids’ memories are negative. We might have a wonderful vacation, but they’ll remember that the mosquitoes were really
bad one evening. We could have a great dinner at a fun restaurant, but they’ll remember that the butter was too cold to spread and made the bread get all smooshed up. After a fabulous day at the beach, they’ll remember that they had to get cherry because the stupid slush guy was out of blue raspberry.

I have no idea why they do this, but it really bugs me and makes it difficult to reminisce without getting angry. My theory is that because the
vacation/meal/day was so good, the one bad thing that happened really sticks out. In order to combat that, I’ve been trying to “cement” the positive experiences in their heads. When we’re on the drive home or reflecting on the day at bedtime, I try to talk about the really neat stuff that happened. I want to plant the seeds of positive memories before
they go to sleep, hopefully preventing the crap from ever taking root. The idea is that we’re stressing the good and diminishing the importance of the one bad thing. So far, so good! I’m cautiously optimistic.

As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think that you can, or that you can't, you are usually right.” Why not expect the best?

Melissa Schools May 31, 2012 at 02:08 AM
Comments from my FB page, reprinted with permission: Kristine: Enjoyed reading your piece. Bill: I would read this, but I know it's just not going to make any difference, and we are still all going to shuffle off this mortal coil after years of dreary routine, punctuated by a few tragic bouts of yearning for things we will never attain. Allyson: Thanks for posting...enjoyed all the pieces! Ryan, who was once plagued by fears and difficulty turning off his thoughts at night now asks me for "2 good things" to think about as he falls asleep. Sarah, fortunately, does everything her big brother does:) It helps us remember a couple of positive things from their day. Judy:Smile & continue to think positive!
Tom June 01, 2012 at 12:58 AM
Love the reference to "Life of Brian". Well done all around ladies.

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