The Optimistic Child

The Optimistic Child
  by Martin E.P. Seligman

A child throws down his pencil in exasperation, and shoves the book away, shouting, “I hate this math, I can never learn to do it!  The problems are always too hard!  My schoolwork is impossible!”  As homeschooling parents, we have all seen frustration like this begin to cloud the learning process.  What can you say to help your child shift his attitude?  In the book, The Optimistic Child, positive psychologist Martin Seligman has applicable tips to help change the tone of these kind of moments.Unlike other parenting or self-improvement books based on opinions and anecdotes, The Optimistic Child presents ideas based on three decades of exhaustive research.  Seligman offers parents a structured approach to correct negative patterns of thinking.  The ultimate message of the book is that pessimism can be prevented and that optimism is an attainable skill. 

Defining Optimism

You might (rightly) fear that a book on optimism would encourage you to put on rose-colored glasses, look cheerfully around you and count your blessings.  Seligman actually has a very specific definition of optimism.  His one sentence summary is that “the basis of optimism does not lie in positive phrases or images of victory, but in the way you think about causes.” Pessimism, then, is defined as a mindset that is perpetually powerless.  In the author’s words, “The most pessimistic people believe that they suffer from a characterological flaw that will doom them to a life of missed opportunities, failed relationships, mediocrity, and loss.  And even when they recognize that a problem is not their own fault, they still see the situation as unchangeable and so do not struggle to change it.”Embedded in this definition of pessimism are the three aspects of an explanatory style that help us account for the occurrence of good or bad events: permanence, pervasiveness, and personalization.  When a cause is permanent, it will effect us for years and years, perhaps always.  When a cause is pervasive, we will feel its effect in many different situations in our lives.  Personalization is the explanation we offer about who is at fault: ourselves, or other people.

Permanence: Sometimes versus Always

Seligman encourages parents to listen carefully to the explanations offered by their children.  “If your child thinks about her failures, rejections, and challenges in terms of ‘always’ and ‘never,’ she has a pessimistic style.  If she qualifies and thinks about bad events in words such as ‘sometimes’ and ‘lately,’ she has an optimistic style.”  Though it may sound very subtle, Seligman suggests there is a big difference here.

Pervasiveness: Specific versus Global

How much of my life is effected by this problem?  “Some children can put their troubles neatly into a box and go about their lives even when one important part crumbles,” Seligman observes.  “Others catastrophize.  When one thread of their life snaps, the whole fabric unravels.”  Children who have a global explanation for their failures feel like giving up on everything when they fail in just one aspect. In contrast, “children who believe specific [rather than global] explanations may become helpless in that one realm yet march stalwartly on in the rest,” Seligman explains.  They are able to maintain the perspective that their failure is not universal, or widespread. 

Personal: Internal versus External

The last aspect of explanatory style is more nuanced. At its core, this idea is about blame.  “Exaggerated blame produces guilt and shame beyond what is necessary,” Seligman emphasizes, “But no blame at all erodes responsibility and nullifies the will to change.” There are two strategies to help your children use blame in a healthy way.  “The first goal,” Seligman asserts, “is not to let the children off the hook for the things they do wrong.”  He cautions, “Children must hold themselves accountable when they are to blame for their problems, and then go on to try to rectify the situation.”  He reminds us that our ultimate goal is “to teach children how to see themselves accurately.” Then, when “problems are their fault, they take responsibility and try to correct their behavior, whereas when the problem is not their fault, they still feel worthwhile.”The second goal for using blame in a healthy way has to do with the type of blame your child uses: general blame or self-blame.  General blame is viewed as an unchangeable flaw in one’s own character.  “Self-blame,” Seligman teaches, “ is temporary and specific : The child blames a particular action… [or] points to a changeable cause.”  This kind of blame has the benefit of highlighting the control a child has.  This “motivates a child to try harder to change the behavior so that he can prevent the problem or overcome the setback,” Seligman teaches.  When the child sees the opportunity, he can feel more encouraged.  To do this, a parent must “focus on specific and temporary personal causes, if truth allows, and avoid blaming the child’s character or ability.” 

Applied Optimism Activities

With each building block of information, Seligman pauses to equip parents to apply the basic skills of optimism.  His examples are specific, real-world scenarios.  In addition, he has skits and role plays for you to rehearse with your child, and even visual comic strips that you can fill in with personal examples.  He believes that “one way to help your child is for you to acquire the skills that keep your own pessimism at bay.”  Parents reading this book will learn to challenge their own pessimistic assumptions. 

The Goal of Optimism

Seligman defines optimism as a lesson in self-awareness. “When you teach your child optimism, you are teaching him to know himself, to be curious about his theory of himself and of the world.  You are teaching him to take an active stance in his world and to shape his own life, rather than be a passive recipient of what happens his way.”  Previously, your child may have thought his most extreme explanations were valid, but with this training he will be able to more carefully evaluate the interpretation of life events.   The result is that your child will be, “equipped to persevere in the face of adversity and to struggle to overcome his problems.”Learning Seligman’s techniques has improved my homeschooling.  As the primary educator, I am close enough to the learning process to hear the beginning of negative thought spirals.  We keep the subject of optimism embedded in our class schedule by being alert to pessimistic statements and correcting promptly.

For Further Study

Martin Seligman: The New Era of Positive Psychology TED Talk2004Authentic Happiness Website

Originally Published in VOICE Volume 23, Number 2: March-May 2017

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