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Raising a Hopeful Child

hopeful_art
Zohar Lazar

When Atlanta's High Museum of Art presented a Picasso exhibit four years ago, Timothy Elliott, Ph.D., and his wife, Nancy, got in the car with their girls and drove more than three hours from their home outside Birmingham, AL, to see the great artist's works. Nancy, an art teacher, provided the running explanation of the paintings. But the conversation with their daughters, Natalie, then 13, and Victoria, then 8, revolved around more than technique and style.

Such lessons help explain how their older daughter kept to her aspiration of writing poetry despite peer pressure to conform to a more conventional female image. "We were living in a suburb where girls were supposed to be cheerleaders," says her father. Instead of abandoning her dreams, Natalie switched to another school, where she could make new friends. Then she decided to take a plunge and applied to the Alabama School of Fine Arts in Birmingham. She got in -- and went on to win Princeton University's Poetry Prize for 11th-graders last year.

The path Natalie took is an example of how hope can change lives. Being hopeful means thinking that things can be better, that we can make them better, says Dr. Elliott, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. "By instilling hope, we teach our kids that they're not merely passive recipients of everything that happens," he says.

These days, however, it can seem that hope itself is under assault. The terrifying events of September 11 certainly contributed to children's perception that the world is beyond their control and that of the adults on whom they depend. At home, 40% to 50% of children born this year are likely to experience their parents' divorce before they reach their 18th birthday. In schools, many children face or fear violence. On-screen, heroes are portrayed taking control through violent means -- greatly limiting the pathways for action that young viewers learn, notes C.R. Snyder, Ph.D., a pioneer in hope research and professor of clinical psychology at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

But there is good news. Hope is basically learned, says Dr. Snyder, who is also the author of The Psychology of Hope: You Can Get There From Here. And as parents, we can encourage our children to think positively. In fact, you're probably already doing so. Yesterday, when your toddler climbed two steps by herself and you encouraged her to try two more, then another, until she could make it to the landing all by herself, you were the coach of the Junior Hope League.

The New Thinking in Psychology

Hope is a relatively recent subject of research. For many years, psychologists focused on people's weaknesses and problems -- on what was wrong, not what was right. According to Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., a leader in the positive psychology movement and author of Learned Optimism, modern psychology has become "too preoccupied with repairing damage when our focus should be on building strength and resilience, especially in children."

His team also measured hope in nearly 400 fourth- through sixth-graders in Edmond, OK, then tracked their test scores in reading and math. The results: Children with more hope learned more.

Lewis Curry, Ph.D., professor of sports psychology at The University of Montana in Missoula, tested hope in 106 female athletes competing in Big-8 track and field events. Dr. Curry and other researchers analyzed each athlete's best performance and found that, natural ability aside, the more hopeful athletes were also more likely to be successful in competition.

Hopeful people are also more inclined to seize an opportunity, says Yair Emanuel, Ph.D., an Israeli psychologist who has studied hope. Interestingly, boys and girls view their opportunities differently. Until age 12, girls are stronger in the "big hope" of imagining a better world; boys are stronger in the "small hope" of achieving specific aims. A boy who likes a girl, Dr. Emanuel says, may figure out that if he walks a certain way to school, he'll run into her. A girl in the same situation will be less likely to plan out her route. By age 15, however, the difference disappears as boys develop bigger dreams and girls learn to be more proactive.

Raising a Goal-Getter

To be hopeful, Dr. Snyder says, a child needs three things: goals, willpower, and waypower. A goal can be as immediate as the bright toy on a shelf that a young child wants to reach or as far off as "I want to be a scientist or an astronaut when I grow up."

Willpower is the energy to pursue those goals. It's easier to call up willpower when a goal is clear in your mind. So part of being hopeful is learning to articulate your goals.

Waypower is the sense that you can find ways to reach your goals, even when you hit obstacles or unexpected hurdles. To gain waypower, a child needs to learn that there's more than one right answer, more than one way to solve a problem.

A hopeful child, therefore, is both optimistic (expecting the best) and determined (capable of treating adversity as a challenge rather than as the end of the road). One important way to instill these qualities in your child is simply by spending time with her. The security given by a strong attachment early in life will give your child the confidence to aim high later on. For parents who work outside the home and for those who are divorced, it can require some tough choices between career and kids, as Charlie Brennan, a Denver journalist and then-divorced dad, recalls.

Three years ago, Brennan had taken a week off work to spend time with his teenage daughter Casey, who was visiting during her spring break. Then the Columbine shootings happened. It was all-hands-on-deck at his newspaper, but with his editor's support, Brennan stayed home. "Psychologists were saying that Columbine showed how important it is to listen to our kids," he says. "It would have been ironic if I'd said, 'See you in three days.' So I stayed home and we digested it together."

At each stage of your child's development, you can foster hope, notes Dr. Snyder. By answering your toddler's "what's this?" or "why?" questions, you enrich his ability to describe his desires, which is the first step to achieving them. By helping your child set "stretch goals," you teach him to enjoy challenges. When walking with his 2-year-old, Bruce Nichols, a book editor in New York City, says to him: "Now we're going to this lamppost, now to this one, and now to the corner." Then they celebrate each little achievement. "Yes, it's easier to pick Sammy up," Nichols says, "but then we'd be doing the walking for him."

Another way to teach hopeful thinking, though you may not think to call it that, is by reading to your child. Besides spurring a child's language development, stories often have a theme of hope. Evelyn Goldstein, a small-business consultant in Silver Spring, MD, says the story her 4-year-old often asks for again and again is "The Three Billy Goats Gruff." Together, mother and son play out the tale. "For Luis, there's no question that he'll be the big, powerful goat," says Goldstein.

As your child grows, help her brainstorm multiple solutions or practice a conversation ahead of time. If she's too shy to speak to her teacher about a problem, for example, you can help her rehearse what she'll say. When she experiences failure, you can stress that rather than lacking talent, she just didn't use the right strategy. Hopeful children "live life like detectives trying to solve a mystery," says Dr. Snyder. "When a detective tries a strategy and it doesn't work, he doesn't say, 'I'm stupid.' He says instead, 'That lead didn't go anywhere.' Then he looks for another clue."

Finding Hope in Helping Others

In short, the best way to teach hope is to live it. "Hopeful kids have at least one hopeful parent, someone busy planning new things, taking initiatives," says Dr. Emanuel. Your children are watching how you deal with obstacles and challenges. And a hopeful parent, he suggests, shows that she respects a full range of aspirations, including those -- like developing one's mind, being creative, and helping others -- that go beyond the material and measurable. Ultimately, a child feels more hopeful when he's working toward something bigger than himself.

Jerry Sorkin, an entrepreneur in Radnor, PA, believes it's a lesson worth teaching at a young age. Sorkin sometimes takes his 6-year-old son, Joseph, with him to Red Cross meetings. "I've explained that the people are there to help those who can't help themselves," he says. In 1999, Sorkin flew to earthquake-devastated Turkey and brought toys to kids who'd lost their homes. When he told his son about his trip, Joseph offered to give up a toy. "I brought back pictures of kids living in tents, and he took them to his preschool and explained what his father did and how he made a difference," says Sorkin.

When adversities in life seem overwhelming, parents can help by offering a historical perspective. "Talking about history takes away the catastrophic specialness of a given event," says Dr. Snyder. "We have centuries of previous examples where humankind has been visited by disasters." What happened is that people found a way to come together, agreed on a common goal, and then dealt with the crisis at hand. The past -- whether it's the story of Picasso's life or the affairs of nations -- can be the textbook that teaches our children hope for the future.

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