My Bookshelf: The Optimistic Child


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?


3 thoughts on “My Bookshelf: The Optimistic Child

  1. I remember hearing once that you should say good things about yourself in front of your children. We usually spend so much time talking about when we mess up and kids can pick up on that. I make sure I tell the kids when I’m doing a good job or just what I did that I’m proud of. It makes a lot of sense. Modeling positive self-talk means that your kids will most likely do it too.

    And I do see my both my good and bad habits rubbing off on my kids. Actually just the other day, J was really crabby and didn’t want to go out for dinner, but i didn’t feel like cooking. My first reaction was just to yell at him to stop whining and get ready to go. I was able to stop myself and ask him why he was so crabby. He took a sec to calm down too and told me he just needed a couple minutes to himself. He sat in his room and was ready to go soon afterward. So, your reaction definitely affects how your kids will behave. I’m probably able to catch myself before yelling only about half of the time, but it makes a real difference when I do.

  2. This is something I think about often for the same reasons you do. I’ve realized that, for one, I’m not as abnormal as I sometimes feel and while not perfect I think I will do well as a mother. From what I know of you, you will do well. You have insight and continually try hard to improve yourself. My mother was crazier than you (trust me) but she taught me that, which was very valuable for me in my adulthood. If I hadn’t been sick for so long without knowing what was wrong I think I would have turned out really well despite going through divorce and other things in my childhood which are not always as horrifying for the child as they lead you to believe. Having a child spend time with many responsible adults to socialize with will lesson the pressure on the parents for being the only good role model, I would think. It’s good to see different but successful ways of dealing with things.

    Sounds like good advice in the book. Not that I have any practical experience.

  3. My mom had/has a really bad habit of constantly putting herself down. Saying things like “oh, I’m so terrible at mechanical things” or “oh, I have a terrible sense of direction” or “oh, my cookies always come out overdone,” deferring to other people as having superior knowledge or skills in almost everything, etc. As I’m getting older I’m realizing how much of an effect that kind of continual self-deprecation (even about things that seem so menial, but are constant) has had on me and my own self-esteem. I guess I’m saying that I second Lucy’s advice about making a point of praising yourself in front of your kids. Not only will it hopefully contribute to a respect for all the things their mom is good at, but also sets an example of self-confidence.

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