After a life-altering back injury took me away from my regular day-to-day life for a full year, I came across this Eleanor Roosevelt quote that resonated with me. “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I’ve lived through this horror, I can take the next thing that comes along’!” When I returned to my office, after my recovery, the first thing I did was put a copy of this quote on the wall near my desk. 16 years later, it is still there. It serves as a reminder to me of that time in my life when I made a conscious decision to make the rest of my life one of optimism and gratitude.
As Optimism is one of the character traits in our Character Education curriculum this year, I did some research into how important this trait is for human beings in general, and for children in particular.
The research is clear: optimism is a critical skill for happiness, health and success. Comparing optimists to pessimists, optimists are less likely to become depressed or anxious and they do better in school and in work. They are generally more resilient and, get this one, they actually live longer! These results make a pretty strong argument for “teaching” our children to be optimists, wouldn’t you say? Yes, optimism is one character trait that we can actually teach. Don’t panic at the thought of having to add one more item to your ‘to do’ list with your children though. You can easily impart the importance of being optimistic, without too much muss or fuss.
As human beings we tend to be wired to pay more attention to the bad things that happen than the good things. That’s pretty unfortunate, but this negativity bias is completely reversible and it really isn’t that hard to do. For example, instead of spending our day thinking of the rocky start we had in the morning, we can change our focus to all the good things that will inevitably come our way and that every day can be a fresh start.
One very simple way to build optimism in our children is to help them learn how to hunt down the good stuff. Our CGS Gratitude Jar is a great example of opportunities given to our staff, students and parents alike, to ruminate on the good things in their lives. As parents we need to help our children focus on all the positives and fight off negative thoughts when they arise.
Helping children identify and squash negative self-talk is another really successful way to build optimism. Negative self-talk is very common, particularly during times of stress but it can be toxic. The cost of negative self-talk can really take its toll so we need to be mindful of the need to help change these internal messages before they get out of control. This does not mean, however, that we give false praise or protect our children from failure. The ability to cope with challenge, frustration and failure is critical for the development of optimism. When children make mistakes and learn from them, they also learn that they can overcome challenges in life; they learn that nothing is the end of the world and that the human spirit is very resilient. All of these things help our children feel hopeful about the future.
Optimism isn’t about seeing everything as rosy all the time. Optimists don’t ignore problems or pretend that life is perfect. Instead, they simply choose to focus on what’s good about a situation and, in turn, what they can do to make things better. Optimism brings a confidence unmatched by other character traits so it’s no wonder that it is such an important factor to enjoying a happy, contented life right from childhood.
We all want the best for our children, there is no doubt about that, and a really simple way to set our children down a positive life path is to practice finding the silver lining in things ourselves. If we do it often enough, it will begin to come reflexively and that is definitely something we want to pass on to our children. So let’s all start this school year off with an optimistic mindset. When things go wrong, as they will inevitably do at times, we should take the optimistic highway. From experience I can tell you that it really is the better road!
Principal and Co-Founder
Children's Garden School