I struggled this week thinking through what do I see parents do that creates optimistic kids? I felt that way until I met Evelyn (name changed to protect her privacy) Saturday night.
This weekend, while the family was camping, we were out hiking in one of our local state parks. Our dog Tucker is a rare breed and garners a series of awesome reactions, ranging from, “Does he have a saddle?” to “Where can I get one?”
At the end of our hike, we were walking by a campsite and a young girl comes sprinting over to see Tuck. Right on her heels was a little girl, wearing a pink dress, flower covered rain boots and an awesome pink, camouflage hat. Eli, our four-year-old, asks “What’s that in your nose?” (I love the honesty of kids) Evelyn’s mom said, “That’s her medicine tube. It’s how she gets her medicine.” We then reminded Eli that he had similar tubes when he was younger.
Come to find out Evelyn is fighting Leukemia and beating it. I am so sad that a 3-year-old has to even know what Leukemia is, for she is the cutest little three-year-old fighter I have met. Her mother volunteered that she was doing remarkably well and was positive “all of the time.” I asked her about her hat and then asked her if she wanted to pet Tuck. She immediately stepped up and started petting Tuck, only to be licked in the face. She was so enamored with Tuck and Tuck just seemed to understand that this was a special moment. I love dogs and how they just get it sometimes.
How can someone so young be so strong? It has to do with how her parents have engaged with her in the first 2 years if her life. I walked away with some thoughts about how we might better teach optimism to our kids.
- Model it. There is nothing more powerful than a child watching their parent “look at the bright side.” My parents always said, “things will look better in the morning.” I can’t tell you the number of times I say “it will be okay.” So much that my wife says “everything will not be okay” when I utter those words. Interesting enough, it all works out. I want out boys to know life is fluid and being pessimistic doesn’t help anyone.
- Turn that negative statement “right-side-up.” “None of my friends like me.” “Do you remember how much fun you had with Sally last weekend?” “I will never get algebra.” “Do you know it took me 2 years to understand proofs?” The chance to show our kids how to see things differently should be taken as often as possible. My parents were intent on preventing our struggles with bullies, school challenges, sports, music, whatever, get our attitudes down. Mom would say things like, “others have it much rougher” or “put it in perspective.”
- Help them walk through what they can do differently to change this outcome or at least future outcomes. By engaging in this “training” early in your child’s life, you will help build their resilience which in turn, will deliver tremendous paybacks as they get older. Ask questions like, “what can/could you do differently?” “How much control of the situation did/do you have?” “How do you think others involved are feeling right now?”
- Be calm! There is so much power in not getting rattled. Laurie (my wife) is a master at this. I have often referred to her interaction with the boys as Zen-Like. Me? I struggle with keeping that calm attitude; however, I do work on it with the boys each day. Our kids pick up on our emotions and if we are freaked out, they will be freaked out as well. I notice that when Ervin, our little one, is upset, I can calm him by reminding him to “meditate” (counting slowly, and blowing the ground, then the air, repeat). I hope that as he gets older and is feeling pessimistic, he leans on the quieting of his emotions and focuses on what he can control.
- Don’t overplay your kid’s failures. Learning from failing is part of the childhood experience and the less you respond to their failures the better. Eli fell off the jungle gym countless times this weekend. It kills me. I want to catch him every time and often find myself trying to preemptively ‘hover’ to prevent a fall. Amazingly, he managed to swing across the elevated ladder for three rungs before plummeting to the earth. He got up and said, “I didn’t make it” to which Laurie replied,”look at how far you have improved in two days!!”
- Be unabashedly honest about our life experiences. Remember stories where you had to maintain a positive attitude throughout some challenging process in the past. Make it personal for them.
- Watch movies that inspire. I cry when I watch movies like Rudy, Blind-Side, Hoosiers, or Invincible. You name the sports movie; I cry. There are lessons about remaining positive throughout an ordeal in all of these movies. Built in training for your kids!
- Celebrate victories, regardless of the size. Eli was born 16 weeks early (2 lbs 2 oz). Because of this, his physical strength still falls well behind his age. The past two weeks we have spent a great deal of time hiking and encouraging Eli to walk the hills on his own (without piggy-back, hand-holding, breaks etc). Eli walked about 4 miles Saturday. To listen to him, he walked “57” miles. He is so proud of that accomplishment. We are too. Next weekend, the hiking should be easier.
I often joke that I hope to be successful 51% of the time as a father when making decisions. This “skill” of optimism comes from hundreds and hundreds of interactions between you and your kids and I wish you the best of luck this week focusing on this trait this week.