I grew up in a home where the phrase "if there's a will, there's a way" was commonplace. I've taught my own children a similar refrain: When faced with a difficult task they've been known to announce, "there's no such thing as can't." And sure enough, more times than not, they "can." Instilling a positive, "can-do" attitude in your children from the minute you are able is a vital step in the process of preparing them to deal with the challenges that lie ahead. If your goal is to raise resilient children, then equipping them with coping skills is key.
Perhaps the greatest coping skill that a child can acquire is a positive attitude. Contrary to what some parents believe, a bad attitude is not just a phase that children outgrow. Educator and author Michele Borba, EdD warns that the longer parents wait to address attitude, the more ingrained negative-thinking habits will become. Rather than changing your child's personality, she explains, your goal is to influence your child's outlook. "It is your job as a parent to stop your kid from being selfish, narrow-minded, noncompliant, and having other bad attitudes that lead to weak character and poor moral intelligence," she says. Although some children are certainly born with a "sunnier disposition" than others, research shows that a child's attitudes are not predetermined at birth. Although certain attitudes may be influenced by biological factors, most are learned, and therefore can be changed.
"Pessimism is fast becoming the typical way our children look at the world, writes author Martin Seligman. "A crucial task for you as a parent is to prevent your children from absorbing this trendy outlook." In his book, The Optimistic Child, Seligman suggests that helping to build a child's self-esteem through "mastery"—a sense of competence—from as young an age as possible is one of the ways to buck the pessimism trend. Some ways in which he suggests parents instill mastery:
- Try breaking a task into small steps and allowing your child to explore new challenges at her own pace.
- Allow a child to make simple choices for himself: "Would you like juice or water?"
- Make both space and time for exploration, providing toys that your child can interact with rather than decorative toys that can't be touched.
- Encourage imaginative play. As your child grows, having a keen imagination will enable him to practice positive thinking as he works through solutions to theoretical challenges.
Once children are working on building a sense of personal competence and armed with optimism, parents can begin helping them to develop more advanced coping skills. Your most powerful tool for teaching positive thinking is the example you set for your kids. According to Borba, "that old mantra 'attitudes are better caught then taught' is 1000 percent correct. Your kids are watching and copying everything you do, even stuff you're not aware of." As a parent, you have more influence on your children's attitudes than their peers, the media, or even their schools do, so be mindful of your power and use it well.