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Ten ways to spread a little happiness

Children are natural optimists. Here are 10 ways to help them always look on the bright side of life


Posted: 30 January 2013
by Susan Walls


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Greener home

1. Start with positive expectations
If you expect your child to be scared of life, guess what? He will be. The power of expectations is stunning. Studies have shown that even very young children act in a way that confirms their parents' expectations of them. In one famous Sixties psychology study, six researchers were told that their rats had superior intellects; another six researchers were told their rats were particularly dim. Within days, the researchers with the supposedly intelligent rats had taught their rodents to run a maze 65 per cent faster than the 'stupid' rats. Yet the animals all came from a genetically identical strain. Children are not rats, but they will live up or down to your expectations of them. The message is: assume good things about your child and he will assume good things about himself.

2. Celebrate making mistakes
When your child hits an obstacle, don't immediately step in and solve it. Instead, encourage her to think it through for herself; if she never fails, she won't learn to try again and will wait for someone to help her out. If she never learns to overcome whatever obstacle is in her path, she'll never have any faith in herself. Try to nurture your child's independent streak. Bold adventurers didn't get where they are by being molly-coddled. If you're going to foster a 'can do' attitude, you have to let your child do things, however much mess it causes. Let her put her shoes on the wrong feet she'll soon discover it's uncomfortable, and she'll want to put them on the correct feet. The bedrock of optimism is knowing that you can deal with whatever life throws your way.

3. Acknowledge all feelings whether happy or sad
One of the most important jobs of parenting is to help your child make sense of his emotions so they can learn to cope with them. So if your child is feeling miserable or worried, don't skate around the problem, or tell him to cheer up.

One of the hallmarks of modern parenting is a tendency to protect children from everything that's bad in the world. Conversely, this sets them up for failure and depression. Because when bad things happen, the child who can't handle his emotions will feel hopeless, unable to cope, and experience a vicious cycle of pessimistic thoughts. Children who believe that all their emotions are acceptable have a more realistic attitude to life's ups and downs.

Instead, talk to him about how he feels: is he sad, angry, anxious? And once he's identified the tricky feeling, help him find ways to deal with it on his own. If children are allowed to experience the full gamut of human emotions, it gives them faith in their ability to handle difficult situations.

4. Don't offer false praise
Praise should be honestly earned. If children are told that everything they do is wonderful, then why do anything more? Last summer, I watched a master praise-giver at work. Nick is a swimming coach who always gets excellent results. He gives children easy-to-follow instructions in a steady, polite manner. If a child gives a mediocre performance, he says: "I know you can do better." If they excel, he says calmly: "Now that was brilliant." My four-year-old son got one "brilliant" from him in a whole week's intensive course, and he had to swim seven strokes unaided to earn it. But when Nick praised him, he grinned so widely as he knew he'd done well, because Nick only said brilliant when he really felt it was warranted. Which is interesting, because I tell my son he's wonderful all the time, and I couldn't even get him to take off his swim-vest. It's good to give children encouragement, but if every single thing they do results in praise ad nauseam, there's a danger of devaluing the currency and praise becomes merely background noise, not something that's worth working for..

5. Give constructive criticism
Telling your child where she went wrong can actually bolster a child¹s self-esteem but the key word is to keep it constructive. "The trick is to describe a negative state not a negative trait," says developmental psychologist Linda Blair. "If you begin with the words 'you are', then you're effectively criticising the child, not what she did."

For example, if you notice that your child was being quite clumsy, rather than saying, "You are so clumsy", try saying, "I notice that you looked clumsy today when you were running, perhaps your shoes don't fit. Should we get you measured at the shoe shop?" "That way," says Blair, "the parent is suggesting that this problem is not an innate fault, but something that may have another cause." If the shoes do fit, then maybe it is a matter of having eyesight tests. Or perhaps ballet lessons would give her more physical confidence. The key is that the child is not landed with a label.

This way of thinking is an important life lesson. One study looked at how optimists and pessimists behave when bad things happen to them. It found that optimists view setbacks as temporary hiccups in an otherwise happy life, whereas pessimists tend to see problems as permanent. And more importantly, they blame themselves for everything that goes wrong in their lives.

6. Emphasise that molehills are just molehills
One of the most self-destructive things that pessimists do is what psychologists call 'catastrophizing': they project disasters onto benign situations. Young children sometimes do it because they don't have enough life experience to work out what will happen. Overheard at pre-school last week, one mother said: "Just tell Jack you don't like it when he hits you." Her son's response was: "But then he'll be angry, and he won't like me, and he won't want to be my friend any more. And then I won't have any friends!" From nought to no friends in less than ten seconds and then the catastrophe becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, teach children that most people are reasonable, and that almost all problems can be overcome.

7. Smile!
Parenting should be fun, at least some of the time. And when you're happy, your child will feel relaxed and happy, too. Parents can often find themselves trying to control their babies and toddlers; trying to force them to behaving a certain way. Instead, take time to get to know your child as an individual with perfectly unique characteristics. Let your children be what's inside them. Only then can they live up to their potential. Optimists all have one thing in common: they all feel loved and understood, and happy to be who they are.

8. Identify things your child is good at
"Children will grow emotionally and developmentally if you help them find out what appeals to them," says Dr John Raven, a psychologist and social policy maker, who spent years studying parents and teachers at work. His advice is: spend time with your child, find out what he loves, then give him the chance to do it because that's what he'll be good at. "That's uniquely the parents' job," says Dr Raven. Schools often fail to bring out a child's individual qualities; parents are a child's most important educators. Competence builds confidence. Confidence leads to success and success breeds optimism.

9. Examine your own behaviour
Three questions: Do you catastrophize? Do you see the glass as half-empty? It's much easier to nudge a child onto the path of optimism than it is to unpick the way your own mind works. But if you are a pessimist, your child is very likely to echo the way you think and talk. Having children gives you the chance to revisit your own childhood, and rethink your outlook on life.

10. Read books with your children that offer a positive message
The world's best optimistic book for children is Oh, The Places You'll Go! by Dr Seuss. It's a bold, funny book about a boy who strikes out into the big wide world. It's a strange world, full of odd and sometimes scary creatures, and Dr Seuss warns the adventurer: "When you're alone, there's a very good chance, you'll meet things that scare you right out of your pants." While the hero discovers that life is never plain sailing, he also learns to overcome setbacks and sally forth bravely. By the end of the book, Seuss has this to say: "And will you succeed? Yes! You will indeed! Ninety-eight-and-three-quarters per cent guaranteed. Kid, you'll move mountains."

Every child should read this book, or have it read to her. There's even a version for reading to babies in the womb, called Oh Baby, the Places You'll Go!





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