Optimistic Parents, Optimistic Children

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Negative Language

Parents frequently use negative and disallowing terms when speaking to their children. Often, they do this in order to protect their children from harm. They tell their children ‘no’, they can't go into the street and ‘no’, they can't pet strange dogs. Such language is also used to convey parental limitations, as in ‘no, I can't pick you up right now because I'm busy cleaning the floor’.

Children hear "no" and "can't" so often that they are some of the first words they understand. "No" is usually one of their first spoken words, wielded skillfully and frequently to the frustration of parents. Similarly, "can't" becomes their fallback response to challenges. Children claim that they can't get dressed because they can't find any clothes to wear, they can't catch the ball because it is too difficult, and they can't wash their hands because the sink is too tall. A declaration of "can't," like an adroitly placed "no," is a mimicked response originally observed by listening to parents.  

Using Positive Language

Transitioning from negative to positive language is one way to combat this inadvertent indoctrination with pessimism. Instead of "You can't run into the street," try "The street is dangerous. Stay on the yard and on the sidewalk." Rather than "You can't just run up to that dog and start petting it," use "First ask the dog's owner if she likes to be petted." And instead of "I can't pick you up right now, I'm cleaning the floor," try "Please wait until I've finished cleaning and have both hands free, and then I can hold you." In each of these examples, both pairs of expressions convey the same message, but the latter ones lack the inherent tone of defeatism that characterizes the former. Instead of centering on restrictions, the latter statements focus on the possibilities. When your child imitates your style and uses "can" thinking instead of "can't" thinking, he will approach difficulties with more hopefulness, concentrating his mental energy not on the limitations but on the attainable.

In cases when your child still does report that something is outside of his capabilities, you may coach him through some "can" thinking tactics. For example, rather than starting from definitive statements of inability like "I can't," encourage him to take a positive inquiry approach using questions such as "How can I?"

Perhaps the child is faced with a task that is too complicated for his comprehension, like picking one outfit from his extensive wardrobe. When he poses the question "How can I?" to himself, if he doesn't devise his own solution, he can be coached on how to break it down into smaller manageable tasks. A closet full of choices can be systematically narrowed down to a less daunting set of options by eliminating long sleeves in favor of short sleeves, stripes in favor of solids, and green in favor of blue.

Or perhaps he is not practiced enough to perform a task yet, like catching a ball. His "How can I?" question can be answered with techniques to gradually enhance his performance. A ball will be made easier to catch if it is first thrown from a closer distance or if a larger ball is first used, before progressively returning to the original conditions.

If he is truly unable to do what he is trying to do, like reach a tall sink, then a better question to encourage is "How can we?" Asking for help is an acceptable and powerful tactic. Many people can often accomplish together what one cannot accomplish alone. Those who learn how to work in teams generally enjoy greater success in multiple facets of life. If the parent lifts the child up, for example, the child will then be able to reach the sink to wash his hands.

In order for a child to adopt positive inquiry as his standard mode of grappling with challenges, coaching sessions will not be enough. He will also need to be exposed to his parents' firsthand modeling of this approach. So, in the example of the parent whose hands are occupied cleaning the floor instead of holding the child, another approach would be for the parent to sincerely and inquisitively ask "How can I pick you up when I'm cleaning the floor?" By verbalizing this challenge, the parent is recruiting the child to help think through mutually satisfying ways to attain both of their goals. The parent is inviting the child to make an impact. The child may suggest cleaning faster, to which an obvious response is "How can we make this job go faster?" The child's involvement in formulating a solution such as helping to clean, and then actually implementing that solution, allows him to enjoy a sense of accomplishment when he is eventually welcomed into his parent's liberated arms. His taste of success will fuel his "can" thinking and drive his hunger for future challenging endeavors.

Making an Impact

Optimism starts with a positive outlook, but that by itself is insufficient. A child needs to deliver himself to success before he will truly believe that he "can." It is perfectly logical that past successes are required before a growing child will feel optimistic – how will he ever believe he "can" if he never "has?" Optimism therefore results from a combination of a positive outlook and past experience.

As parents, we are left with the puzzle of how to facilitate a small child to drive himself to meaningful successes using his limited set of skills. Successfully reaching goals cannot be meaningful if reaching the goals is too easy or if the expectations are set too low. If the expectations are set too high, on the other hand, then the child will only develop feelings of powerlessness and inadequacy. The essence of the puzzle, then, is in setting expectations that are both high and attainable. The solution is that the expectations need to be high not with respect to adult standards, but in relation to the child's specific abilities. It is easily forgotten, that a flawless work product is not the purpose of every effort. It is often enough to simply have the child accomplish something once thought to be beyond his abilities.

The minimum acceptable performance in a given task should be set to match a child's abilities and gradually elevated in accordance with his growth. The expectations are therefore aligned with the child's maximum ability, and may even be set slightly above his ability as aspirational goals. Parents then inspire their children to meet these high expectations by acknowledging diligent efforts, and recognizing improvements in performance.

Modeling Optimism

In order for your child to accept the notion that expectations are high and being continually raised, you of course must hold yourself to the same ideal. Your child should be accustomed to seeing you performing up to your advanced ability, free from shortcuts, half-hearted attempts, and careless efforts. It is also helpful to call attention to improvements you are making in your performances, be it for cooking a new dish, playing a new game, or using new software. When high and increasing expectations are viewed as normal, children will naturally desire to perform to their ability and continually improve. 

Hard as it may be to leave imperfect results uncorrected, performances that are at the child's capability level should be accepted. This may mean living with a bed that is not made completely smooth, words that aren't spoken completely clearly, and floors that aren't swept completely clean. Consider that a child's rudimentary fulfillment of tasks is often not a sign of sloppiness or laziness, but rather a placeholder for the results targeted but not yet within reach. In the floor-cleaning example, the parent may see crumbs and streaks that are unnoticed by the child. If the child has the coordination and strength to leave the floor with a polished glow, then it is best to call attention to the crumbs and streaks - after acknowledging the progress already made - and allow the child to complete the job and rightfully earn his parent's embrace. But if the child has already performed up to his developmental level, and the parent offers only criticism, or negates his efforts by personally rectifying the deficiency, then the child's feeling of triumph could instantly morph into a sense of inadequacy, the parent's appraisal of his failure having been wordlessly issued.

By focusing on limitations with "can't" language, many parents unknowingly transmit a pessimistic outlook to their child. And then they double down on their mistake by demanding performance beyond their child's abilities, diminishing his confidence and discouraging his desire to have an impact.

By using "can" language for themselves and their child alike, parents can have the remarkable effect of bestowing their child with a positive outlook. And then with properly placed expectations, the child will capitalize on the opportunity to contribute at his level and have a meaningful impact on himself and on the family. He will experience the pride and life-enriching qualities of an ever growing base of knowledge and abilities. His successes will fuel him to seek out and attain more successes, because he will know that he "can."

Author's Note: This is the fifth in a collection of posts about the example you set. Six different behaviors are to be covered. Read about compassion here, honesty here, fairness here, and determination here.

·       What ways do you use optimism at home with your children?

·       When do you find it challenging to be optimistic?

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How to Properly Cite this Article: Brian Vondruska, “Optimistic Parents, Optimistic Children”, The Kind of Parent You Are, accessed [date], https://www.thekindofparentyouare.com/articles/optimistic-parents-optimistic-children.