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can be heard discussing Positive Psychology here.


Is Your Child’s Glass Half Full?

January 2016

You have heard the saying, “The difference between an optimist and a pessimist is that the pessimist sees the glass as half empty, while the optimist sees it as half full.”  When you think about it, don’t you want your child to grow up feeling that his glass is at least half full?  This attitude will serve him well throughout his life. However, you might wonder how to instill in your child that optimistic way of seeing things.

 Many people have the mistaken opinion that the basis of optimism lies in positive, victorious phrases such as “You can do it!”  That is not how optimism develops.  True optimism lies in the way you explain the causes of things.    Some explanations we give ourselves lead us in more positive directions than others.  The ways we think about and explain things develops in childhood and, unless we work to change it, that style will last for a lifetime.  This is why it is important for you to notice how you and your child explain things, if you want to feel your glasses are half full.

The permanence and pervasiveness of things are crucial dimensions that people, including your child, use to explain why any particular good or bad event happens to them.  If you can understand the fact that ways of explaining things either support or undermine an optimistic world view, you will be able to help your child achieve a positive outlook on life.

Permanence has to do with the “sometimes” versus the “always” of things.  People who have pessimistic outlooks believe the causes of the bad events that happen to them are permanent.  The bad events that are happening now are always going to recur.  By contrast, people who bounce back from setbacks believe that the causes of bad events are temporary.   “Always” and “never” lead to pessimism, whereas “sometimes” leads to an optimistic outlook on life.   “No one will ever want to be friends with me at school,” is a less helpful thought than “It takes time to find new friends when you move to a new school.”

Some people can put troubles neatly into a box and go on about their lives while others who posit global explanations for their failures give up on things more quickly.  Children who believe specific explanations for their failure may have problems in one realm yet march stalwartly on in the rest.  “Teachers are all unfair,” is less helpful than the specific, and optimistic opinion that “Mrs. Smith was unfair in this particular event.”

Optimistic and pessimistic people also respond differently to good events in their lives.  People who believe good events have permanent causes are more optimistic than those who believe they have temporary causes.  For example, “The only reason I won the spelling bee is because I practiced hard this time,” is not as optimistic a statement as  “I won because I’m a hard worker and I study my lessons.”

Optimistic people explain good events to themselves in terms of permanent causes.  They point to traits and abilities that they will always have, like being hard working, likable, or lovable.  When people (including your child) believe their successes have permanent causes, they will try even harder next time.   People who see temporary reasons for good events may give up even when they succeed, believing their success was a fluke. 

By paying attention to statements you and your child make, you can help both of you become more optimistic.  Remember, if you believe a cause is permanent and pervasive, you will project its effects across many different situations in your lives.  Just by limiting your negative or critica