Monday, May 6th, 2013
One of the most important traits you can nurture in your child is optimism. The roots of optimism take hold early in life, and contrary to popular opinion, are primarily the result of experience, rather than genetics (or put another way, optimism can most definitely be taught even though some may be prone to be more optimistic than others). Optimistic kids have an edge – they are protected from depression and show much more resiliency when faced with challenges. And by optimism, I’m talking about the realistic kind – not the Pollyannaish brand. The core of optimism is to perceive the realities of a situation and focus on the things you can do to help make things better. It’s a motivational fuel that propels behaviors necessary for success, as discussed in Paul Tough’s recent book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character.
How can you encourage optimism in your kids? Well, the easy answer is to say being optimistic yourself. That said we all know that parenting is hard, and the realities of the daily grind can wear down even the most optimistic parent. To that end, I spoke with John Jacobs – co-founder with his brother Bert of the Life is good Company – to get his insights on the role optimism has played throughout his life. Why John Jacobs? He and Bert spent five years selling homemade tee shirts without much success. One of their ideas, though, caught fire – a drawing of a face with an infectious grin and the slogan “Life is good.” Turns out that deceptively simple expression of optimism resonated with lots of folks, and now “Life is good” is a hugely successful lifestyle brand, as well as an ambassador for the power of optimism in people’s lives. Today, Life is good’s mission is to spread the power of optimism and help kids in need, which they accomplish by donating 10% of their net profits to the Life is good Kids Foundation.
John is well positioned to talk about optimism for many reasons. In addition to his successful career and the central role that optimism plays in the “Life is good” story, he credits many experiences he had growing up with optimistic parents. And, as John is a dad to a four-year-old, a two-year-old, and a baby not yet six months old, he lives the life of a parent who brings optimism into his kids’ lives on a daily basis. John articulated a number of important take-home messages for parents drawn from his many experiences – which I share here as 4 things you can do right now, everyday, to cultivate optimism in your kids.
LAUGH MORE, COMPLAIN LESS
John did not grow up with many traditional advantages. He was one of six kids growing up in a small house. Yet the emotional climate of the house was very positive:
“There was plenty to complain about if you wanted to, yet it seemed like when we woke up in our bunk beds, we’d hear our mom singing or cracking up over something. She just decided to focus on things that made her laugh or things that would be exciting to her kids. There was no dwelling on the fact that the toast was burning again or one the kids was wearing cleats to school because they couldn’t find their shoes.”
John summed up his mom’s parenting strategy as “keep the circus moving forward.” Yes, life with kids can be chaotic, stressful, and a little crazy sometimes. It can wear you down. But, making the decision to laugh (at least some of the time) rather than complain or dwell leads to a positive emotional climate in the home – and the foundation for an optimistic attitude in kids which doesn’t deny reality, but makes the best of it.
FRAME THE DAY
John recalls that there was something especially powerful about waking up each day to the sound of his mother’s happy, joyous singing. He, too, suggests that parents “frame the day” by setting a positive tone:
“I love the word ‘excited.’ It can be used every day when you wake up! You can talk in an excited voice about the color of the trees today or what the sky looks like. You can generate enthusiasm about what you’re planning to do that day, or who you’re going to see. It’s not a trick. You can fuel a kid’s excitement so that they get pumped up about playing with an empty box and they end up turning it into a rocket ship or an airplane or a clubhouse. It’s a decision you make on how you are going to frame your day from morning to night.”
This advice resonates strongly with clinical experience. Many families who express lots of negativity and interpersonal stress start off their day this way. There are usually triggers that gets parents and kids started with a negative attitude first thing in the morning – whether it involves issues with eating breakfast, getting dressed. These little things might not sound like a big deal – but it drags the energy level down and can turn into a way of seeing the day’s tasks as a burden.
John’s idea is so powerful because it covers the entire day – he also suggests you try to “frame the day” at night as well. How? Simply put, instead of everyone talking about all the lousy things that happened during the day (and we know there are usually a few every day), you make a concentrated effort to also talk about the good things that happened. John’s family has a habit of everyone (even the toddler) taking a turn at the dinner table and talking about one good thing that happened that day:
“Before dinner every person at our table shares what they are grateful for. Our four-year-old has taken over the leadoff slot. He likes to start the conversation and usually he just keeps going – it’s good stuff! He’ll say things like, ‘I’m grateful for the floor, for the ceiling, for the lights, the ocean, and the color green.’ We love hearing that and seeing the smile on his face makes it hard to cut him off. The food might get cold but you’re thrilled to see a kid that young frame the world in that way.”
It’s a powerful way of making sure that the good doesn’t get lost in the bad – and that your kids develop the habit of framing their day with realistic positives, including both expectations of things to come and appreciation for things that came.
We’ve all heard our young (and not-so-young) children complain about how bored they are. Such boredom often comes hand in hand with a dreary, enervated experience of the world. Don’t tolerate it! And certainly don’t mitigate it by allowing your children to watch television. John has a powerful recollection from his childhood days:
“I remember distinctly my mom saying to us ‘The only people who get bored are boring people.’ That was the last time I used the word ‘bored’ – when I was maybe six years old.”
Part of boredom is to shoot down ideas – to find the negative in anything. You know the drill – I don’t wanna do that ‘cause it’s boring. Blah blah blah. But this kind of pessimism doesn’t serve kids well. Check out John’s perception based on his career as an entrepreneur:
“Pessimism closes doors and squashes ideas before they have a chance to breathe, grow and develop. If you have a naysayer who’s squashing things, who focuses on why something won’t work, you’ll never have an innovative idea. Negativity sucks the energy out of a meeting; it sucks the life out of it. That’s why optimism is a trait we look for when hiring people.”
Give your kids the message that it’s up to them to make life interesting. It’s up to them to find ways to make themselves happy. It’s up to them to find ways to engage themselves. This is a fundamental aspect of optimism that you don’t necessarily hear that much about. Try it. You will be very surprised and pleased to see how creative your kids will be when left to their own devices.
If you don’t try something new, you won’t succeed. It’s that simple. A primary reason kids become reluctant to try new things is that they are afraid of failure. John – like many entrepreneurs – has always embraced mistakes as a key way to learn:
“Even though you know you’re going to ‘fail,’ one of the biggest lessons we learned was that when you try, you either succeed, or you learn. These are both positive things. My business partner and I made so many – hundreds! – of mistakes, yet the power of the message and mission of our company, which is to spread optimism, just carried us through. We learned to try to keep trying, to stay nimble enough to try out new things, to make mistakes, to fall down, and to learn from all of that ‘failure.’ That’s how you get smarter. If you fold your arms and tuck away and get defensive, it’s not a good recipe to grow and develop.”
John strongly encourages his kids to try new things, even if they don’t know whether they will be good at it. As he tells them, they don’t have to do something perfect the first time:
“The most tangible example for me was teaching my oldest son to ride a bike. It was so exciting! We had the brief little protest of ‘I don’t have the training wheels’ and ‘I needthe training wheels’ – that kind of thing. But he got focused on what was in front of him and started to push down that front pedal. Twenty minutes later, he had a big smile on his face. It was a metaphor for so many stages in life. There are so many of those situations growing up when a kid is not sure and nervous about trying something. Then you go for it a little bit and maybe you stumble once or twice but eventually you have a positive experience.”
If your kids don’t learn how to learn – that “mistakes” are a part of the learning curve – they will deprive themselves of the chance to get good at something. The optimist knows that they will get better if they really pay attention to all those mistakes and use them as a platform for improvement – one small step at a time. Those small steps add up when you take them.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
As John reflects:
“This idea of what you choose to focus on is one of the most basic foundations for a happy life for you and your kids. Do you want your child growing up thinking how lucky he or she is and how incredible this world is—and how many opportunities there are every day to do things that are new, and to grow as a person? This isn’t corny to me. It’s what I truly believe.”
If you make these kinds of choices, your kids will also believe that “Life is good.” The will know how to ride out the bad times and learn from them. And they will have the skills to ensure that good things will come.