Modeling an Optimistic Outlook

Dad shares advice for instilling optimism in your kids.
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I can’t say that I’m all “rainbows and sunshine.” I consider myself a cautious optimist. I’m generally optimistic about outcomes, but am aware that things can go wrong. And nothing annoys me more than others worrying about things they can’t change or control.

The hardest part of trying to raise an optimist is often the part that requires modeling optimism. How often do we complain about what we see on the news, about our bills, something that went wrong at work, or someone or something in our life that is annoying us? How often is that done in front of our kids? There are some solid lessons I have learned throughout my lifetime, and they seem to be working. So, in no particular order here is my approach to instilling an optimistic outlook in your kids.

Focus on solutions rather than problems. Instead of saying, “We’re never going to get to the restaurant on time,” try focusing on solutions like trying a different route to get there faster. Kids then see your ability to readily adapt.

Don’t take everything so seriously. One of the best things to do is laugh off some of the bad. Laughing can help you and your kids feel better. I grew up in a family that got through tough times with laughter. Now that I’m almost 40 years old, I still use laughter to get through hard times.

Last year when my dad was dying, he and I talked about whether or not he wanted any specific music played at his funeral mass. He said to me in a very serious manner, “There is this one hymn I have always loved.” I expected him to suggest an old religious hymn. Instead, he looked at me and said, “It’s Miller Time.” Laughter is the best medicine, right?

Kids and adults love praise. Mind you, we’re talking about genuine praise, not the puffery that a lot of people throw out. Kids are experts at detecting phonies. If you constantly tell a kid he is the best at everything and that everything he does is great, he will know something’s up. The key to giving genuine praise is to be sincere and specific. A “Whoa, you are a little multiplication master! You’re faster than a calculator” goes a lot farther than “Good job, buddy!” It’s also important to acknowledge the work that went into honing the skill.

Be appreciative. In our family, we often talk about the importance of thanking people or recognizing people for going above and beyond. “Wasn’t it so nice of your teacher to give you that book to read?” or “It was so nice of Daddy’s bosses to give everyone a grocery gift card for Thanksgiving.”

I appreciate financial guru Dave Ramsey’s catch phrase when he’s asked how he’s doing. He says, “Better than I deserve.”

Follow their passions. Teach children to not be discouraged by naysayers. I often explain to my boys that if I had listened to the people who told me “no” or “I can’t,” I wouldn’t have a career in broadcasting. Memories of people telling me I couldn’t accomplish my passion still pushes me to be better.

When I was in high school and worked at a small local radio station, one of my teachers told me that I would never work at a “real station” like (fill in the blank). Within two years, I had proven him wrong. So, to him, I say thank you, because his challenge pushed my internal drive to be successful. (Also, nanny-nanny-boo-boo).

I am optimistic that these small changes can help you and your kids have a positive outlook. Hey, hope springs eternal.


Derek James is a host of WCCB News Rising. He and his wife live in Charlotte with their two sons who are ages 9 and 6.