In an age of anxiety, we all want to raise optimistic children. But what does that actually mean? And how can we make it happen?
The importance of optimism is drummed into us from an early age. “Look on the bright side,” people say. “Be a glass-half-full person!” “Stop being such a whingey little sad sack!” (You can thank my older brother for that one.) Yet people rarely stop to ask, well, what exactly are we hoping for when we feed our children these messages? Is optimism a prerequisite for lifelong happiness? And if we’re trying so hard to build a sense of optimism in our kids, then why are childhood depression and anxiety at such epidemic rates?
On at least one point, the science is clear: young children are natural-born optimists. “Kids have what we call a ‘positivity bias’,” explains Dr Janet Boseovski, a researcher in early childhood psychology with the University of North Carolina. They can be complex thinkers when it comes to making purely analytical judgements about the world—deducing, for example, that a doctor knows about the body and a mechanic knows about cars, but not vice versa—but if they’re asked to make an evaluative judgement about those people, they tend to assume the best.
“They don’t want to hear negative things about people,” says Boseovski. “In our research we’ve shown that people only need to do one positive act for a child to register them as nice, whereas they need to do several negative things before a child will accept that they’re mean.” This effect is sufficiently strong that children will actively discount the information offered to them by experts if it’s negative in nature, turning instead to a more positively inclined non-expert or stranger. The effect can be seen as early as three years of age, peaks in middle childhood and only begins to wane in the year or two before adolescence. “The odd thing is you think these kids are getting more sophisticated in their thinking, but their positivity is only increasing.”
There’s no definitive reason as to why kids are so naturally optimistic, but at least part of it is thought to be cultural. “There’s certainly evidence to suggest that this effect is more pronounced in Western societies,” says Boseovski. “We tend to focus on the importance of the individual, so adults are more likely to compliment children and tell them that they’re good at things. As a result, children are having these very positive worldviews constantly reinforced.”
There are certainly advantages to seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses. Positivity makes children more willing to try new things and to retry things that they haven’t immediately succeeded at. “You’re going to fail a lot when you’re learning about the world,” says Boseovski. “You almost have to be positive to put up with it.” Children with a strong positivity bias are also more likely to transition successfully through school and have stronger social connections.
However, such unabashed positivity can leave children ill-prepared and unprotected when the inevitable harshnesses of life start arriving. “The developmental question that we’re all asking is: at what point should reality hit?” says Boseovski. “Right now, we’re in a culture where everybody’s great and everybody gets a medal, so it’s tough for kids to accept that other people are actually better than them at certain things.” If this fall from grace is too dramatic, it can lead to significant mental distress, including anxiety and depression.
Boseovski’s research has shown that kids are more able to accept negative feedback if it’s not couched in personal terms. “The important thing is to make feedback less about personal and trait-based thinking and more about how they can improve their skills and find new capabilities.” It’s the difference, Boseovski says, between a culture of achievement and learning; between telling children they’re bad at something and telling them that they need to work harder at it.
Another thing that parents can foster in their kids is a greater focus on skills of induction and critical thinking. “You just need to talk to your kids about what evidence they have for believing certain things,” says Boseovski. “What did you see just now? Why do you think this person acted that way?” To Boseovski, healthy scepticism is an important component of an optimistic outlook. “Parent–child dialogue is so, so important to childhood success and wellbeing. And a lot of that is just having the patience to talk with them about what they’re seeing and how they’re interpreting it. What angle are they taking? What’s their perspective?”
This resonates with work carried out by psychology professor Rosanna Rooney, co-founder of Aussie Optimism, a childhood education program run through Curtin University. “Optimism isn’t a question of being positive all the time,” she tells me. “It’s about believing that you’re able to respond positively to life’s challenges.”
Rooney’s program is informed by the research of Martin Seligman, the father of Positive Psychology. “His theories are based around looking at situations and evaluating them to see whether they’re really as difficult or distressing as they first appear,” says Rooney. If a child fails a math test, she explains, they may feel like a failure, but by encouraging them to look at the evidence—that they’re good at spelling and reading and have lots of friends—they can understand that it’s not the disaster it first appears. “You’re teaching them to see the reality or the accuracy of their thinking, because people often catastrophise and see things in a more negative light than the reality suggests.”
At the heart of Seligman’s research is the idea that optimism is a learned behaviour, a set of skills that can be trained and cultivated. Twin studies have shown that while there is a genetic component to one’s tendency towards optimism or pessimism, it only accounts for a third of our outlook. The rest resides in our prefrontal cortex, the part of our brain that regulates our emotional responses and allows us to organise and prioritise tasks. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is the same region responsible for depressive thought patterns.) While this part of our brain is acutely shaped by the nurture side of the nature/nurture divide, it’s also the part most open to training and rewiring—what’s known as ‘neuroplasticity’.
A child’s tendency towards pessimism is, as Rooney says, multifactorial. “These kids might have been in repeatedly difficult situations, or they might not have had a lot of support in their early years, or there might be a genetic or biological component.” There’s a role-modelling aspect as well. “If they’ve seen parents or people close to them catastrophise frequently, then that can certainly rub off on them too.”
Rooney’s own passion for the topic began almost twenty years ago when she read a meta-analysis of various studies that showed that the primary driver of childhood depression was a negative thinking style—and that the most effective time to intervene was when children were eight years old. “I just thought, Well, I’m going to do that.”
Over the years, Rooney’s programs and research have expanded to include kids as young as five and as old as fifteen. “The evidence shows that it’s really important for young kids to develop the ability to identify emotions in themselves and others,” says Rooney. “Things like sad, happy, angry, scared. Once they’ve identified the emotions, they can start recognising what they feel like and then you can start talking about strategies to manage and deal with those feelings. It might be walking away when they’re angry. It might be doing things they enjoy. It might be talking to their parent or a person they trust, or a period of relaxation, or facing their fears in a safe way.”
There are several other well-known stimulants for an optimistic outlook: meditation, physical activity, acts of generosity and expressions of gratitude are all proven enablers of positivity and mental wellbeing. One thing that links all these activities is that they all help kids exert a sense of control over themselves and their circumstances—basically, the building blocks of optimism.
But for Rooney, the best thing we can do as parents is simply to start enacting optimistic thinking in our own lives. “The principles of cognitive restructuring work the same for adults as for children,” says Rooney. “We’re both equally capable of changing our thinking. And we’ve found that when teachers run our programs, their mental health has been shown to improve. So, simply by helping your child become more optimistic, you might start seeing positive changes in yourself too.”