Raising an Optimistic Child

The Wiz was going to blog about this, as she recommended the book to me, but it seems that she got sidetracked (read: BlOGGERSLACKER!). She was reading the book _The Optimistic Child_, by Martin E. P. Seligman, and she and I were discussing it. Basically, this book claims to have the answers to safeguard children against depression and build lifelong resilience and optimism. Sounds pretty good to me. And I'm totally up for shelling out a coupla bucks if it will make me a perfect parent, no matter how ludicrous the claim. So, I bought it after my discussion with The Wiz. And I'm about 1/3 of the way into it (read: PROCRASTINATING FROM UNPACKING). I would highly recommend it to any parent or parent to be, and I want to share some of the more interesting parts I've read so far. There is more to it than this, but basically he says that everybody has a certain explanatory pattern about why and how things happen to them, and how pervavise the events are in their lives. A pessimist will tell you that every good thing that happened to them was because of something or somebody else, not because of something he did, but that every bad thing happened as a direct result of his actions, and that those bad things will always happen, i.e., a permanent condition. Pessimistic attitude: I got that promotion because the other guy they wanted left, but it won't take them long to see I'm not really good enough for the job. There was that one time when I made a mistake--I always screw things up! In comparison, an optimist thinks that bad things happen because things were stacked against them, and that good things happen because he worked hard and is talented, and that bad things are only setbacks, temporary obstacles that can ultimately be conquered. Optimistic attitude: Wow, I finally got that promotion after all my hard work! I didn't get it before because nobody was noticing me, but the boss finally figured out I am an asset. Of course, there was that one time I made a mistake, but I figured out the problem and got it resolved. It wasn't easy, but I did it. How does this translate into good parenting? Well, most kids will learn their explanatory behaviors from their parents. That's right--our kids will learn optimism or pessimism from us. And they learn not only from what we say about ourselves in front of them, (i.e, I'm always such a mess! I never do anything right!) but also what we tell them about themselves. Kind of a scary thought, isn't it? There is also some interesting stuff about familiar self-esteem talk we do with kids, and how often it isn't effective. Kids apparantly don't like to be told they did a good job when they know darn well they totally sucked. It makes them feel humiliated, not understood, and undermines their confidence and trust in the adult's perception and praise. Hmmm...another interesting thought. Any educators or parents have any experience with that? There is an interesting chart in the book about how to criticize preschoolers. I'd like to share that with you now: (and remember, the pessimistic way is the wrong way!) Permanent/Pessimistic: "What's wrong with you? You are always such a monster!" "I asked you to pick up your toys. Why don't you ever do what I ask?" Changeable, Temporary/Optimistic "You are really misbehaving today, I don't like it at all" "I asked you to pick up your toys. Why didn't you do what I asked today?" Global/Pessimistic "You've got your mother's knack when it comes to sports. I'm horrible too." "She never likes to play with other kids. She's so shy." Specific/Optimistic "You've got to learn to keep your eye on the ball." "Sometimes she has a hard time joining a group of kids." Internal and General/Passive and Pessimistic "You're not athletic." "Another C? I guess you're not an A student." Internal and Behavioral/ Active and Optimistic "You have to work harder on watching the ball meet the bat" "Another C? You need to spend more time on your studies." Sometimes the differences are subtle, but they are there. This list, and others like it, have made me really stop and think what I am doing or not doing to my child when I talk to him. Also, this kind of paradigm shift actually seems to be quite easy to do, once you get the hang of it, so I actually don't feel overwhelmed when thinking about how I can apply this to my parenting. I realize I make permanent statements about myself in front of J all the time. The other day, I forgot some tickets I needed, and I said, out loud, "I'm always such an idiot! I always forget important stuff." Such a little thing, and yet it says that I feel it is a permanent condition that I forget stuff. And I already hear J saying things like, "I'm not good at computer games. I can't do it." So my attitude is affecting him. But I really think we can change it, that it's not too late. After all, I'm trying to be optimistic! :) And I do recommend the book. It follows along some of the same lines of another favorite parenting book _Between Parent and Child_, by Heim Gringott. (I think I spelled that right!) With all of the parenting advice out there, it's nice to see two books actually talking about the same thing. Any other optimistic thoughts?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

This probably applies to our relationships to other people beyond our children. I hear myself thinking, "Why can't my husband ever keep track of his shoes?" or "Why does he always..." You get the picture. With myself, I tend to be optimistic. Sometimes with my husband, I am pessimistic. Hmmm...

6/14/2006 12:25:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I raised 7 children, several optimists and a couple of pessimists. Many of these characteristics seemed to come with them from the preexistence. The suggestions you gave tho can't hurt and might really help change those prebirth proclivities, it's certainly worth a try.

6/14/2006 12:50:00 AM  
Blogger Cheryl said...

Coming from a long line of pessimists ("You think it's bad now? Just wait!" --Great Aunt L.), it has been sometimes hard to overcome and be optimistic myself. I think those are great ideas of how to instill positive thinking in children.

It's funny because I will be so negative, and yet I don't want to be around negative people --and will even COMPLAIN that they are negative...

I want to break the familial chain of negative thinking and that book is right --it has to begin with me.~sigh~ One more thing to work on! Thanks for this post... :)

6/14/2006 08:38:00 AM  
Anonymous mark IV said...

Heather O.,

I read Seligman's book Learned Optimism a few years ago, and more or less agree with most of it.

Here is the problem I had with it then, and still haven't resolved:

When a child is raised with the idea that bad things are only temporary, externally caused setbacks, how can that child learn to repent?

If I remember the book correctly, Seligman recommends that I look upon good things in my life as things I brought upon myself through talent and hard work. I deserve every blessing I have, they are no less than what I am due because of my own wonerfulness. Conversely, the cause for anything bad is located somewhere outside myself. A child raised with those attitudes would very likely become an ungrateful, selfish adult who is unable to take responsibility for wrongdoing.

I really do think Seligman is on to something important, but I would also be interested to see how you or others can reconcile his ideas with the gospel. Or maybe I am misreading his ideas?

6/14/2006 11:04:00 AM  
Blogger The Wiz said...

mark iv -

I understand your concern, I kind of had the same thought with Learned Optimism. But reading this book helps to resolve it for me.

He's not saying nobody ever does bad things, he's saying that when people do bad things, it's possible to teach them to change. It's actually very helpful in the repentance process, I think, because it teaches that bad behavior can be changed, resolved, through specific action.

When you (or your kids) sin, part of the repentance process is forsaking that sin. That's often the hardest part. This kind of thinking helps you to understand that your sin can be temporary, that you can change and forsake that behavior, that it's not permanent. You still sinned, you still made that mistake, but that mistake does not make you a permanently bad person. It makes you human, and is a temporary setback.

For example, my parents always told me I was lazy. They didn't tell me I was being lazy that day, or that I should have done something specific instead of sleep longer. It was a very consistent, very permanent, message that I fulfilled beautifully. If I was lazy anyway, why not sleep another hour? I still think idleness is my great sin, and that it's going to be pretty much impossible for me to overcome, since I 'just came that way' and 'I've always been lazy' so why try to change? It won't work. I've got plenty of evidence to that end. I find it difficult to repent of idleness, because I really feel I won't be able to forsake the behavior.

This program helps to change that kind of thinking. It also likes acknowledgment of a higher power.

I've even heard my mom tell me that my oldest daughter has always been lazy. As a newborn. Um...newborns don't have a lot of responsibilities other than sleeping and eating.

My parents are good parents, really, this is just one specific example that really jumped out at me as I read this book, kind of an ah-ha moment for me. Often their messages were optimistic in nature.

That's how I read it, anyway. It doesn't tell you to absolve all responsibility for mistakes, it teaches you that mistakes can be changed, (but only after they are acknowledged).

6/14/2006 01:07:00 PM  
Blogger Heather O. said...


I thought about some of those points, too--that taking credit for every goo thing that happens turns people into arrogant, meglomaniacs who fail to see God's hand. But I think the main point of optimism, and also in raising an optimistic child, is that we have control over the things in our lives, and that setbacks and mistakes, which inevitably come, can be coped with, conquered, learned from, and dealt with. I also agree with the Wiz that in so many ways, optimism opens the way for repentence, for the opportunity to change, which is ultimately what God wants us to do. A pessismist sees himself stuck in a rut, constantly sinning or making the same mistakes because of his own nature. An optimist sees himself able to change and alter his environment, and to be proactive about his ultimate destiny. Which one do you think God would approve of?

6/14/2006 04:14:00 PM  
Anonymous mark iv said...

Wiz/Heather O.,

Thanks to both of you for your comments, they were very helpful. I agree with Seligman's conclusions, but sometimes he lost me along the way, so I appreciate your insights.

6/14/2006 11:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Sue said...

This was a great post with great ideas - thanks! I've ordered the book...

6/15/2006 10:58:00 AM  
Blogger Slap-Happy said...


Let them get struck by reality after leaving your care.



(hunched over, hand-wringing implied)

6/15/2006 11:16:00 PM  
Anonymous LisaB said...

We have this one, and it's really been a great tool for us, too.

6/17/2006 06:52:00 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth-W said...

I'm a major Seligman fan. Another great book which follows the same reasoning is by C R Snyder, titled Making Hope Happen. He puts a spin on the phrase 'where there's a will there's a way. He divides hope into both Will and Way, meaning we have to have the energy/internal drive (or will) and the way (or good problem-solving skills). Snyder teacher people how to enhance these skills.
I liked the questions mark asked, and the answers he got. That's how I would have replied, too.

6/22/2006 12:59:00 AM  

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