On Friday I wrote that I would post about the book Dave and I are reading that I hope will help me with my desire to raise emotionally healthy children. I started reading the Optimistic Child by Dr. Martin Seligman over a decade ago for a mentor program I participated in when I was in high school for which I studied depression independently. It has a slightly different meaning for me now and I feel as though I understand it a little better.
Seligman’s theory is that depression is caused by learned helplessness. Those who do not learn how to bounce back from failure eventually fall into the habit of just refusing to try. When they don’t try, they don’t see that they sometimes will succeed or, more importantly, that they will get better as they continue to try. Therefore, they begin to believe that they have failed before they have even tried. Understandably, this leaves them depressed.
The book is primarily focused on immunizing kids against depression by teaching them optimistic thinking. It’s harder than it sounds. You can’t teach a child to think optimistically by simply telling him or her that everything will be great all the time. Why? Because things are not great all the time and kids know it. If you try to delude them when things go badly, they know you are lying. It is important to acknowledge that while things may be rough at the moment, it is a temporary state and in the long run situations will improve if you work to improve them. Persistence is important for improving and learning.
It seems hard to acknowledge that your kid has failed. It is not intuitive for me to say, “sure things are rough right now”. I suppose it is easier to do that if you can follow it up with, “but if you keep trying it will improve. Let’s practice. It will be fun to learn and get better!”
What if I can’t think of a way to improve the situation? What if my kid tries and doesn’t get better? What if I let down my guard for one moment and my depression and pessimism creeps back in and rubs off on my kid?
Dave is further along than I am and told me there is a chapter that explains that it is important for parents to lead by example. If you do not try to succeed at something and make lame excuses for why you are not willing to try, your child will pick up on that. Even if you work hard to preach to him or her that s/he should be positive and persistent, it will not necessarily be effective if you do not practice the same skills.
I’m not very far in my re-read so perhaps I will feel more confident after I finish the book. I suppose that is all the more reason for me to work on these healthy habits for myself.
Do you see your emotional habits rubbing off on your kids? Do you make an effort to be more optimistic and persistent when s/he is within earshot?