Ages & Stages 6-10: Encouraging Optimism

Does it frustrate you to hear your child mutter, “Why bother? I won’t make the team,” or “It doesn’t matter. I can’t get an A”?
Children today face enormous academic and social pressure, but an attitude of passive resignation isn’t healthy. Martin Seligman, Ph.D., lead researcher for the Pennsylvania Resiliency Project and the author of “Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life” (Vintage, January 2006) describes three benefits of optimism any parent would want for a child: Better health, greater academic and extracurricular performance, and the motivation to keep trying when times are tough.

Optimists experience less physical distress in challenging situations than pessimists and have stronger immune systems, according to 25 years of research conducted by Michael Scheier, Ph.D., a psychology professor, and his colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University. Optimists live longer and happier lives. In addition, optimists are achievers. Studies show optimistic youth get higher grades and perform better in athletic competitions than pessimists, even when they are led to believe their earlier performance was not so good.

While genetics play some role in determining kids’ attitudes, there is evidence parents can help kids look on the bright side more often. Seligman calls this “psychological immunization” against depression. Here are some ways to help your child think optimistically in today’s pessimistic culture.

Practice thought watching. Learn to spot your child’s negative self-talk. Kids often express negative thoughts aloud: “My hair looks ugly,” or “I don’t have any friends.” Help your child reject unfavorable thoughts and encourage her to act as her very own thought cop.

Model optimistic self-talk. Talk with your child (over breakfast, or on the way to school) about what might happen today. Perhaps you have an important meeting or are attending a playgroup together. Share your excitement with your child. Say “I’ll have a chance to present my ideas,” or “I might make a new friend.”
Make a mantra. Remember the story “The Little Engine That Could”? He puffed faster and harder saying “I-think-I-can, I-think-I-can” until he succeeded. What phrase motivates your family in challenging times? Inject some humor, and say your slogan together when times are tough (you’re climbing a big hill, walking a long way, or stuck in slow traffic). You’ll end up laughing about how silly you all look and show your child you’re in this together.

Take action. Try new things — even scary ones. Go someplace new. Cook and eat a new food for dinner. Discuss with your child the benefits of openness to new experiences. When you meet someone new, be the first to introduce yourself. If the new park is less fun than the old one or the new food tastes icky, focus on what you learned. Say, “Now we know how much we like the slide at our park,” or “Wow, that tasted yucky! But it will make us strong and healthy.”

Change your child’s explanations for adversity. Even for optimists, things don’t always turn out great. What matters is how kids make sense of undesirable outcomes. Move from global, personal evaluations to more specific, situational ones. “I failed the test because I’m dumb, and I’ll never be good at math” is pessimistic, but “I failed because I didn’t understand the problems and need more practice” allows for active coping. To help your child make the switch, ask guiding questions: “What other explanations can you think of?” and “What can you do differently next time?”

Focus on improvement. Optimists know getting better is a process. Encourage your child to adopt this approach by commenting on her improvement, not just the outcome. Say “You really improved your sprint from the starting line” or “Your spelling has really improved since the rough draft,” rather than focusing on her place in the contest or grade on the report.
Be a skill-builder. Kids’ skills develop incrementally. Read a book or watch a video together that teaches a skill your child wants to develop. Encourage him to ask an expert for advice, if you know one. Practice the skill in a simple way then move up to bigger challenges. Reinforce the idea that your child can learn to do just about anything.

Recognize good when it happens. Some emotion researchers believe people are programmed genetically to pay more attention to bad news than good — learning from bad news helps us survive dangerous situations. But focusing on what’s wrong diminishes all that is going right. Before bed, play the “three good things” game. Both you and your child list three good things that happened today and describe how you felt about them. You may be inspired to list three good things you anticipate tomorrow, too.

An optimistic attitude encourages positive action. By encouraging an upbeat approach, you give your child the key to a healthier, happier, more productive life. Optimists’ dedicated, persistent action can change the world for the better, and I believe our kids will do just that.

Bright Side Books for Kids
• “Little Liam Eagle,” by Nancy McGrath (BookSurge Publishing, 2008). A young eagle bravely soars past his fears with his parents’ encouragement.
• “Stitches,” by Kevin Morrison (Ambassador Books, 2003). Stitches, a baseball, dreams of the big leagues — but a stitching defect sends him down another path to his dreams.
• “Dare to Dream! 25 Extraordinary Lives,” by Sandra McLeod Humphreys (Prometheus Books, 2005). Biographical sketches of famous artists, athletes, thinkers and inventors inspire kids to persist in the face of adversity.

Heidi Smith Luedtke is a psychologist and military mom, who lives in Alexandria, Va. Her blog on parenting as a leadership experience is online at