Nurture Your Children’s Muscles of Optimism

Optimism is not about wearing rose-colored glasses. Optimism is the muscle that focuses on “what I can do” rather than “what I cannot do.” It focuses on the importance of effort to grow and learn. It also realizes most difficulties are specific to a context and situation rather than “ruining everything.” Difficulties are temporary, not permanent. With this in mind, an optimistic person looks at a difficult situation or a failure and begins to explore what aspects of the situation they can influence. Then, they set about to exert their influence and produce a change. You can see why this muscle helps to prevent depression, increases perseverance, and promotes success. But, how can you nurture the muscle of optimism in your children? I’m glad you asked. Here are four practices that will help develop your children’s “optimistic muscles.”

  1. Acknowledge effort and strategy rather than global traits. Telling our children they are “smart” or “gifted” leads to children who avoid a challenge so they do not lose their position as “smart” or “gifted.”  Calling your children some global label, like “lazy” or “stupid,” contributes to them believing they cannot change. But, acknowledging effort communicates that success comes through effort, an important message. Acknowledging strategies (how your children go about reaching a goal) communicates that a momentary problem can often be overcome with a little strategically placed effort. This also opens the door to discuss alternative solutions when problems do arise. Children who know that effort and strategy produce positive ends learn to become optimistic children.
  2. Describe specifics rather than end results when praising your children. This helps your children focus on the process, the strategies involved in reaching a goal. It communicates that even if the end result is not perfect, some parts of the process are good. They can be built upon to create a better end in the future. So describe choices made, actions taken, or obstacles overcome rather than looking only at the end result. The trophy becomes more meaningful when the choices, actions, and perseverance displayed in achieving it are acknowledged, recognized, and described. This also helps your children know they have the power to influence the end result (the product) by adjusting their actions and choices during the process.
  3. Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities. Mistakes do not “ruin everything.” Instead, they represent a “temporary setback,” an opportunity to learn what did not work in a particular time and specific context. Celebrate the mistake as an opportunity to learn. Why did it not work in this situation? Is there ever a situation in which it might not be a mistake? Was the mistake a matter of timing? When, if ever, might it be helpful? How could you do it differently to avoid the same mistake in the future? How could you correct the mistake now? Thomas Edison reportedly said, “I have not failed 700 times. I have not failed once. I have succeeded in proving that those 700 ways will not work. When I have eliminated the ways that will not work, I will find the way that will” (The actual quote was likely somewhat different but making the same point. Read this from Quote Investigator to learn the documented quote.) Children who realize that mistakes are learning experiences are more likely to accept challenges, persist longer, and be more optimistic about their efforts. Embrace mistakes as learning opportunities.
  4. Try new things. Go new places. Experience new adventures. Sure, you might have some let downs, but they’re just learning experiences. You’ll also enjoy many exciting adventures. Your children will learn they can overcome obstacles that arise. Their confidence will grow as they step out of their comfort zones and survive…even have fun and thrive.

Put these four practices into place and over time you will see your children’s optimism grow. They can flex those “muscles of optimism” and experience greater success in relationships and life!

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