Three of the greatest gifts you can give your children are also the least often mentioned in books on parenting skills: optimism, humor, and faith in your child. Optimism motivates you to never give up, which helps you turn failures and setbacks into comebacks and successes. Optimistic people succeed more often than more pessimistic people because they learn from their mistakes and failures and refuse to give up until they succeed, a self-fulfilling prophecy. In one study of 500 incoming freshmen at a university, a test of optimism predicted their grades the first year better than did either their SAT scores or high-school grades. Optimistic people tend to stay motivated despite frustrations and failures. Pessimistic people often give up and make their poor expectations come true, another self-fulfilling prophecy.
Optimism or positive thinking also helps avoid depression, anxiety, and anger and can give you the confidence to reach out, develop conversation skills, and improve your social life. Practicing being optimistic contributes to happiness and mental health and sets a good example for your children, who can then learn this skill and reap the benefits.
One great way to show and teach optimism is humor. Children love laughter and silliness and humor creates fun in your life, relieves frustrations, and brings peace to conflicts. Even ancient cultures recognized the importance of humor and expressed this by creating gods and goddesses of laughter and mischief, fools, and court jesters. This tradition continues today with clowns and comedians. Set aside time with your children each day to practice seeing the humor in the day’s events. This is a fun activity that helps your children take their frustrations less seriously.
Think of funny things you could have said. Poke fun at yourself, other people, and the situations you find yourself in. Your own flaws, mistakes, and conflicts with other people make very good material. Look for the absurdities in life, the labor in vain, and the times of much ado about nothing. Experiment with using either gross exaggeration or great understatement to find the humor in a situation. Exaggerate or understate facts, feelings, situations, action, number, size, or comparison. Use the element of surprise. Develop unique associations connecting mismatched feelings, facts, situations, or objects. Experiment with plays on words such as puns and double meanings. Memorize jokes, funny lines, and amusing stories you hear and practice telling them. Sources of humor include your own experiences, friends, humorous books, television, comedians, bumper stickers, T-shirts, and buttons.
Having faith in your children helps build a good self-concept and prevent problems. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to ignore good behavior and to notice mostly the bad things your child does. Try not to make the mistake of often or constantly scolding and insutling your children with negative labels such as bad, brats, stupid, mean, shy, etc. Using these labels shows that you don’t have faith in your children. It frustrates them and can cause them to have low self-esteem, to feel unable to change, to believe the label fits, and to act accordingly. During childhood, despite an angry refusal to accept such labels, being bad (or stupid, mean, a brat, etc.) can seem like a fact of life the child cannot change without superhuman effort. In a self-fulfilling prophecy, these children may give up trying to improve themselves and may live up to the social role implied by the negative label.
That’s why it is so important to notice and praise good behaviors much more often than you scold or discipline your child, especially in young children. Praise repeatedly teaches young children what behaviors you want and appreciate. Notice and praise good behavior in very young children many, many times a day, at least five or ten times as often as you scold them. This only takes a few seconds each time but it can do wonders. Praise or thank your child for the simplest things, such as playing quietly, kindness toward the cat, using a book carefully, waiting patiently while you talk on the phone, taking turns, or sharing. As children grow older and develop a positive self-image, they won’t need praise so often, but you should never stop praising. Even teenagers need regular thanks and praise for their talents, virtues, routine chores, and helpful acts. Occasionally give praise in front of other people or to your spouse when the child can hear you.
Be careful to avoid praising your child for not doing something bad, however. For example, never say “Good! You’re not being mean!” or “I’m so glad you’re not bothering the cat! That’s wonderful!” Thanking your child for not doing something bad ruins the positive emphasis of praise, implying that the child’s normal behavior is much worse. By mentioning bad behavior, it can also suggest the idea of misbehaving. Instead, say “Good! You’re being so friendly!” or “You’re treating the cat so carefully and nicely! That’s wonderful!” Always describe praiseworthy actions in a positive way by describing the good behavior, rather than the avoidance of bad behavior.
Show confidence and faith in your child’s abilities by noticing small improvements and pointing out developing skills. Be realistic. Don’t demand perfection. Understand that toddlers need a great deal of training to play nicely with other children, share toys, take turns, show kindness, help around the house, etc. Always praise progress, even if the child still needs to do much more. Praise work and effort even after failure. Always try to give hope, but emphasize that many things come only with long, persistent effort.
Avoid constantly using words like no, don’t, stop, quit, and can’t. And don’t overgeneralize by using words like always, anything, nobody, everyone, and never. Using these negative words builds poor self-esteem by emphasizing that something is wrong and the child is at fault. Children who hear these words too much tend to ignore them.
Be patient. Scolding, yelling, and hostility show a lack of faith, make training your children unpleasant, and may provoke rebellion. Show faith by making your reminders, requests, and commands politely, using the word please. State your reminders, requests, and commands positively rather than negatively. Talk about what you want, rather than what you don’t like or won’t tolerate. Use “Please pick up your clothes now, honey,” rather than saying, “Stop leaving your clothes everywhere!” Instead of saying, “Quit fussing!” to your child, you could say “There’s no reason to become upset. Do you remember what patience is?”
Once your child understands things better, learns the skills, or knows the rules, train with friendly reminders or gentle questions about what should be done in this situation, how another person probably feels, the effects of the child’s behavior on friendships, or what would happen if everyone acted that way. You can often state a rule or even set consequences in an optimistic positive way that shows faith in your child. For example, instead of saying, “If you don’t pick up all of your toys, you can’t go to Billy’s,” you could say “If you pick up all of your toys, you can go over to Billy’s for the rest of the afternoon.”
Eliminate the need for scolding or consequences that build poor self-esteem in all these ways and by using clear commands or rules that tell your child exactly what you expect in troublesome situations. For example, when entering a grocery store with a young child, calmly say “Stay with me. And remember, if you beg or touch anything without asking, you can’t have it.”
Losing faith in your child after a series of disappointments can help cause further problems. Family therapists see many parents who are overwhelmed by their children’s problem behaviors. Very often, the parents’ negative and pessimistic attitude toward their children helped to escalate the problems, both by alienating and building poor self-esteem in the children.
Our thoughts are surprisingly important in raising children. Parents’ thoughts can affect their children even if they never express the thoughts in words. Many people don’t realize thoughts can have great power in our lives. Dramatic evidence for this comes from hypnosis, the placebo effect for pain, faith cures, and voodoo deaths. In the placebo effect, simply believing someone gave you a potent medicine often improves pain. Faith cures at religious sites or by charismatic healers may combine the placebo effect with a newly acquired serenity, acceptance, confidence, and vigor that reduces the helpless, needy sick role and allows one to pay less attention to symptoms or problems. Voodoo deaths come from the great anxiety and loss of hope in the cursed person caused by the belief that death is inevitable.
Research repeatedly shows that adults’ unexpressed expectations of young children may become self-fulfilling prophecies. When researchers misled teachers about the intelligence and ability of their students, children who received fake superior labels more often improved on later IQ tests than did those who received fake average labels. Several studies observed teachers to find out how their expectations affected children and noted differences in the way teachers behaved. When interacting with supposedly superior students, teachers tend to ask them more questions, lean forward more, use more eye contact, nod their heads more, smile more, and attempt to teach more information to them than supposedly slower students. With slower students, teachers tend to explain more and repeat themselves more often, which may slow down the learning process.
Parents who lose faith in their children will show it in subtle, nonverbal ways. If you don’t have faith in your child, your child will probably sense it through subtle things you say and do and your body language. This compounds the child’s problems, increases frustration, and damages the child’s self-esteem. Sometimes it leads to a deteriorating relationship between parent and child and to more severe behavioral problems in a self-fulfilling prophecy. If your child has done wrong, express your disappointment and anger, set an appropriate punishment, forgive, and then show faith in the child’s basic goodness and expect improvement. Even after a serious mistake or two, try to trust that your child will eventually mature and make wise decisions. Forgiveness bathes the child in love, and faith in your child’s basic goodness encourages improvement.
In most situations, this is the best response. However, when teenagers continue to do wrong despite the consequences their parents set and communication between them and their parents is poor, it is important the parents get help early, before the teen becomes deeply involved in drugs or crime. For example, get help early if communication is poor and your teenager gets suspended from school more than once, regularly stays out overnight without permission and gets into trouble, steals more than once, has more than one alcohol blackout, uses drugs chronically, or commits assault. Of course, many teenagers with problems refuse to go to counseling. If this happens, hold a loving group confrontation with all the concerned family members and friends to persuade the teen to go. Even afterwards, the more concerned people who become involved in monitoring the teenager’s progress, the better.