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“Life is good”: 4 Ways to Nurture Optimism In Your Kids

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.

The Jacobs brothers selling tee shirts

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.


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.”

The bunkbed from John’s childhood

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.


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.”

John Jacobs

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.


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. 



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“Dear Boston”: A Great Song For A Great Cause

Monday, April 29th, 2013

It’s been two weeks since the Boston Marathon tragedy, and since then many stories have emerged about helping those whose lives were changed that day. There are a number of ways you can support the healing of those involved. Here I will share one particularly inspiring story. 

Megan Conner – a top singer/songwriter in Nashville who is also a fitness expert – crossed the finish line about 15 minutes before the explosions occurred. She was close enough to hear the explosions go off and see the clouds of smoke. The experience of being there that day not only gave her a sense of connection to all those involved, but also, as she described to me, an “overwhelming love and concern” and a need to do something for the families who are dealing with a very long healing process. So she wrote and recorded a song called “Dear Boston” as a way of capturing the emotions involved and serving as a platform for raising funds to help those who need help.

You can hear the song and watch her accompanying beautiful video on YouTube. Follow the link on the video to download the song for $1 (which will help support the victims and their families) or click here for a link to do so.

It’s a great song for a great cause.

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Should Sharing – Or Not Sharing – Be Mandated In Preschool?

Wednesday, April 24th, 2013

Should young kids be told that they must always share? Should they be told that they never have to share? Or should they be encouraged to learn how to try to work things out themselves? 

The answer from decades of research on preschoolers is … they should get experience in trying to try to work things out themselves, with good guidance from adults.

To get an expert perspective on this, I contacted Dr. Melanie Killen, who is Professor of Human Development, Professor of Psychology (Affiliate), and the Associate Director for the Center for Children, Relationships, and Culture at the University of Maryland.  She is the author of Children and Social Exclusion: Morality, Prejudice and Group Identity (2011), co-editor of Social Development in Childhood and Adolescence: A Contemporary Reader (2011), and serves as the Editor of the Handbook on Moral Development (2006, 2013). Dr. Killen has a distinguished record of conducting seminal research on the social, moral, and cognitive development of preschoolers (as well as older children), and as such is well positioned to offer a perspective on sharing in the preschool years. Below is her take on a few key issues.


Yes. Sharing toys and resources is a fundamental aspect of early childhood social interactions that promotes the development of social competence. In fact, children who learn how to resolve conflicts about sharing in constructive ways (e.g., through negotiation and bargaining) are more liked by their peers and better adjusted in school contexts than are children who resort to aggressive strategies (such as insistence on one’s own way). What children learn from conflicts about sharing toys under optimal conditions is how to bargain, negotiate, and apply principles of fairness to their peers.


A policy that mandates either sharing or “no sharing” is a problem from the start because it removes the opportunity for children to understand the principles that underlie sharing behavior.  These principles include the fair distribution of resources – how do we share resources (or toys) in such a way as to treat others with mutual respect?  This involves explaining to children the conditions in which not sharing toys is being unfair to another child (“If you play with all of the toys then he won’t have any to play with”). However, it’s also important to recognize that there are also conditions in which not sharing toys is viewed as legitimate, such as claims to ownership (“This is her special birthday present and she doesn’t want it to get broken”), or previously agreed upon rules about the use of resources (“She had the toy yesterday so today it’s your turn to use the toy”).


The bottom line is that a unilateral policy takes away from the learning opportunities for young children through which they teach each other what makes it wrong to refrain from sharing (“You had it all morning and I didn’t get to play with it so can I play with it now?”).  Adults need to facilitate the opportunities for children to discuss, negotiate, and interact about how to play with toys, especially in early childhood when the stakes are still low.  Learning how to share toys, which includes the recognition of ownership claims is a fundamental social skill that is related to constructing notions of equality, fair treatment, and mutual respect.

Children Playing via

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Boston Marathon Explosions: Be In Control of What Your Child Will Hear and See

Monday, April 15th, 2013

Mother Soothing Young ChildThe news of the explosions at the Boston Marathon once again necessitates that parents take control of what their kids will hear and see. Here are a few key points to keep in mind.

Be aware that coverage (TV and online) of these explosions – and the coverage will be continuous and extensive – will have some graphic footage. There are recordings of when the explosions happened. There are images of injured people on stretchers. You will see the aftermath which can be disturbing.  It will be on TV. It will be online. Keep this in mind in terms of what your kids will see. Kids of any age will find this disturbing. It’s a good idea to monitor your kids now so you can be in control of what they see – and be on the ready to switch off quickly if there are things they shouldn’t see.

In addition to footage, remember that interviews will contain graphic talk. People will be describing what they saw and heard. Many will be distressed. The talk may be graphic and reference fatalities. Online, you will read quotes by witnesses. Again, you might want to actively screen this information.

While shielding your kids from footage and conversation that is upsetting, it’s also important that you be the source of information for them. You can explain things in the best way possible without deviating from being honest. Keep your descriptions short and factual (“Yes something bad happened. Some people were hurt.”) without going into much expansion. Allow your kids to ask you questions and answer exactly what they are asking. For example, if they ask if anyone died, you can simply answer “Yes” and see if they ask anything else. Try to be calm and in control even though these catastrophes rattle all of us. Even though we can’t assure our kids that we can keep them safe every second of the day, we do want them to feel safe with us and have some sense of control.

Finally, be aware that your kids may have questions for awhile, as this tragedy will undoubtedly be in the news for some time. Keep the lines of communication open and be ready to have frequent and short conversations about it – kids may have a question here or there and they are only looking for an immediate answer to it. You can rely on your knowledge about your kid’s personality, but do bear in mind that kids typically don’t want the level of detail that we adults would pursue.

And of course do what you do best – hug your kids. That will speak volumes.

Discussing Tragedies

Mom Soothing Child via

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Red-Hot Parenting Recap February 2013: Child-Haters, Genes, Parenting, and Barriers To Services

Thursday, February 28th, 2013

February 2013 was a busy month in the world of parenting – lots of things going on. Here’s a snapshot: 


The news that an adult male slapped a stranger’s toddler on a plane led to a conversation about how our culture may be breeding, at a minimum, a lack of respect for our youngsters – and at worst, provide a context in which child-hating is tolerated.


Speaking of conversations, we had many about if we should use what we are learning about genetics to support genetic engineering, including targeting childhood psychiatric disorders. Then came news that new research suggests some genes might predispose to a number of forms of mental illness – but it’s not at all clear that this will move us closer to genetic solutions.


We always include applications of current research to help guide us decide on good parenting strategies. One study suggest how important it is to let your toddler – and not you – be the “boss” when you are playing. And compelling research showed how the simple act of turning off violent shows and replacing them with educational content – without limiting the amount of TV watched – is beneficial for kids.


We took on some key barriers to getting kids mental health services and broke them down in understandable turns. Now we all wait to see if sequestration is going to provide the biggest barrier of all.

Time For Review via

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