Optimism is a critical skill for happiness, health, and success, traits that most parents desire for their children. But, as parents, how do we lay the foundation for an optimistic outlook for our children?

While some studies indicate that optimistic traits are passed genetically, it’s generally agreed that our environment plays a large role. Babies are natural optimists in a sense, because they come into this world unbiased and untouched by societal expectations and influence

Life experience and the parent-child connection lays the groundwork for a child’s mindset. Based on these factors, children form an internalized working model for how they interact with themselves, others, and the world. They begin to see the cup as half full or half empty, and their inner self-talk reflects their optimism or pessimism.

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We parents have an exciting role in all of this. We can help nurture our children’s rosy outlook so they become realistic optimists, critical thinkers, and resilient humans. This is all done through small moments —not grand gestures—which makes it doable for us parents who are already juggling all the things of raising a child.

What does it mean to raise optimistic kids?

Before we talk about tools, let’s talk about what it means to be optimistic. An optimistic attitude is when we see the positive side of things, and feel that life will ultimately turn out well. When challenges do arise, optimists believe they can (and will) get through them.

A “realistic optimist” doesn’t ignore problems or pretend life is perfect. Nor are they void of unpleasant emotions. Challenges and hard feelings are part of our child’s development and part of being human. Having these experiences certainly doesn’t deem them a pessimist.

Rather, a pessimistic attitude is when we expect bad things to happen. The belief is that feelings and events are permanent, pervasive, and personal, and that the individual is powerless to change the outcome (the four Ps). Let’s see these in action: 

  • Permanence: “I feel sad and I will always feel sad. This is the way it is for me.”
  • Pervasive: “Nothing ever goes right.”
  • Personal: “I won’t ever make any friends. No one will ever like me. I am unlikeable.”
  • Powerlessness: “I got a low grade because I am terrible at math. There is nothing I can do. I will never get better at this.”

6 ways to raise an optimistic child

1. Manage expectations 

Keep in mind that our younger kiddos, such as our two to seven-year-olds, have a harder time managing frustration and disappointment, and they struggle to manage their impulses, so you may see tidal wave emotions followed by big behaviors in the face of a mistake or when things don’t go their way. Rest assured, this doesn’t mean you’re raising a pessimistic child. 

2. Notice your child’s tendencies

This step just requires your mere observation, because observation is non-judgmental. When we become curious about how our children respond to life, we are better able to meet them where they are and get curious and creative with tools. Does your child seem to mirror the four “Ps” of pessimism, do they exhibit the four points of optimism, or do they alternate among both mindsets? So, for example, does your child color out of the lines and throw away the entire artwork, or do they turn that mistake into something new? Do they make generalized statements like “everyone is mean” and “nobody likes me” or can they separate their worth from other people’s actions? When they make an error, do they think things like, “I’m so stupid” or do they think, “I will ask questions so I understand better?”

3. Nurture a growth mindset

If you follow Carol Dweck’s work, you may notice that pessimism and optimism sound a great deal like her coined terms fixed and growth mindset. She describes a fixed mindset as believing there’s a trait that you cannot develop over time. You’re either good at something or you’re not. Sounds pretty similar to the four “Ps” of pessimism, huh? A growth mindset underscores the idea that a person can learn or improve skills and traits over time with effort and practice.

One way to embrace a growth mindset for children is to focus on and praise their effort over an outcome. According to Dweck, when children hear responses that praise what they did rather than how hard they worked, it mirrors an evaluation, and they often feel pressure to live up to that success every time. By praising the effort they put forth, your child may feel proud and optimistic from within. Here are a few ways to do that.

  • Comment on what your child did that was successful: “You kept trying until you got it. I love how you kept going when things got hard!”
  • Empathize with the excitement your child feels about their achievement: “Wow! You worked hard on that! I enjoyed watching you do this activity.”
  • Encourage: “That’s a hard puzzle piece, and I see you trying every space to see where it fits. I believe in you!”
  • Empower: “That looked like it was so easy. Let’s try something more challenging to help your brain grow!”

4. Teach emotional intelligence

How we respond to our children during different stages of a meltdown has the opportunity to build optimism and resiliency. Imagine your child in their most upset state. Here are some ways to help your kids build emotional intelligence.

  • When we sit with our children in their anger, frustration, disappointment or sadness, without attempting to rush them along to a more pleasant experience like happy or calm, they build stress tolerance. Communicate physical and emotional safety with your body language and tone such as kneeling down and offering, “You are safe.” 
  • When we validate and empathize with our child’s emotions, they develop skills for emotional regulation and grasp the impermanence of feelings and experiences. It may sound something like this: “I know you wish this were different. I believe you. This feels hard. This feeling won’t visit forever, and I am here.”
  • When our children do calm down, and we work on creative problem-solving, it teaches a growth mindset. Children store these bids of co-regulation within and access them down the road when they face adversity, challenges, or overwhelm. 

When children see emotions as temporary, informative, and useful, and internalize that they can change their feelings with their thoughts, it lays the track for optimism. 

5. Curb negative self-talk

We all have an innate negativity bias, which our ancestors used to survive. In today’s world, we don’t have the same threats of a lurking saber-tooth tiger, yet negative events and feelings still have more impact on our psychological state than positive ones do. This begins for babies as they experience greater brain responses to negative stimuli. This bias affects how we think, respond and feel. 

One way to curb your child’s negative self-talk is by asking them questions that look at the bright side, such as… 

  • “What is one thing you did well at school today?” This question helps children recall a piece of evidence that contradicts the negative beliefs they may have about themselves, which, over time, enhances optimism.
  • “What is one thing you can do this week to help you feel more prepared for your math test Friday?” This question helps children shift from focusing on the problem (which can often lead to feelings of anxiousness) to creative problem-solving. This builds their confidence and growth mindset, ultimately increasing optimism. 
  • “What would you say to your best friend who told you they were feeling/thinking this way?” Sometimes it’s easier for children to come up with compassionate responses when it’s not about them. Your child can practice treating themselves the same way they would a friend, focusing on what they do well and what they can improve upon with effort.

6. Model the tools for your children

Our children are constantly making estimations about the world, not only from what we say but from what we practice ourselves. Take a moment to think about your levels of optimism. What do you do in the face of your own challenging emotions? How do you talk to yourself? Are mistakes safe in your home? Sometimes it’s tricky to teach our kids what we are still practicing ourselves. The real magic isn’t in your perfection, but in your humanness.