Recently, Martin Seligman, president-elect of the American Psychological Association said "Children can and should be immunized against depression by teaching them to be optimistic instead of pessimistic." This is good advice, given the fact that depression is a growing problem in our society. Some call depression a major epidemic. It is estimated that one in five, or 20 percent of the adult population will suffer from this illness. Immunization against this widespread illness can begin with developing the right attitude early in life.
The early childhood years, the years from birth to age eight, are a good time-indeed, the best time to help children look on the bright side of life. The early years are critically formative years during which basic characteristics and attitudes are developed and reinforced. The following are some things we can do to help children think and act in a positive manner. We can:
- Instill in children a desire to try, try and try again. As we all know, life is full of failures. However, we can teach children that they do not have to be satisfied with failures, and that one path to success is following the old adage, "if at first you don't succeed, try and try again. Too often, parents and other adults provide children with neither the encouragement, the support, or self-confidence they need to try again. Sadly, some children are allowed to think that one attempt or a series of halfhearted attempts are sufficient. Such thinking can lead to failure, feelings of pessimism, and a diminished sense of self-worth.
- Help children succeed and be successful. As the saying goes, nothing succeeds like success. Positivism is built on success and achievement. This means that parent and teachers have to help children develop skills that lead to success. For example, children need to learn and master the basic skills of reading, writing and arithmetic which enable them to confidently and competently complete school work. Being successful in school leads to success in life and a positive attitude.
- Help children think positively about life and life events. We can help children learn that the glass is half full rather than half empty, that there is always another time and another tomorrow, and generally another chance. In this regard, rather than encouraging children to give up, we can help children learn from their mistakes and make plans for trying again.
- Help children learn from their mistakes rather than blame themselves for their mistakes. Self-blame can lead to feelings of worthlessness and pessimism. Learning from things that do not go well and making plans for doing better the next time is healthier than self-blame and quitting. Furthermore, children who know that mistakes are acceptable and are a part of learning are much more willing to attempt a task again. Children can learn from their mistakes and grow from these experiences.
- Make sure children have responsibilities and are responsible for what they do. Having responsibilities for helping at home with chores, completing homework and school assignments, caring for a pet, taking care of themselves and their possessions, and caring for and about others are good ways to instill characteristics of success and achievement. At the same time, making children responsible for their actions helps promote a life-view of success, accomplishment, and positive behavior.
- Be positive yourself. Children learn to be positive when they have parents, family members, teachers, and others who also look on the bright side of life rather than the dark side. Children constantly look to adults to see how to act. They model their behavior and attitudes after parents and other adults they spend time with and value. Children also turn to significant adults to receive affirmation and confirmation of their actions. For many children, what they see is literally what they are, and what they become.
We can all help children improve their lives day by day by helping them look at life from the positive side rather than the negative. As we help children embrace life and view it through the eyes of an optimist, we will develop our own bright side of life as well.
George S. Morrison is professor of Early Childhood Education and the Velma E. Schmidt Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Education at the University of North Texas.