Raising a Positive Child in a Negative World
PBS Parenting, Amy Blankson
February 2013

In the weeks following the Sandy Hook tragedy, the lead stories on the news have been truly heart wrenching. Sometimes I find I can’t bear to read or watch another story, and other times I simply can’t look away. As a parent of three girls, I desperately want to shelter my children from the negative events that take place in the world. But deep down, I know I can’t physically protect my children from every trial or danger that they might face, nor would that even be healthy for them. What I can do is equip my children with a powerful tool to increase their resilience and even to flourish in spite of the negative world: a positive mindset.

At first, positivity seems like a woefully inadequate tool to deal with life’s greatest challenges, but research from psychologists like Barbara Frederickson teach us that optimism forms the foundation of world view and impacts every facet of our decision making. Positivity shapes how long we persist at a task, how creative we are in brainstorming choices, how confident we feel as leaders, and even how collaborative we feel with family, friends, and co-workers.

Shawn Achor, former Harvard lecturer and author of the international bestselling book The Happiness Advantage, defines optimism as “the belief that your behavior matters.” Take a moment and imagine what your children would be like if they were more optimistic about life. Maybe your child wouldn’t give up on homework so easily; maybe your child would have the innate self-confidence to face a bully; maybe your teenager would have just a little less angst; maybe your child would have more compassion for the world around us. Teaching young children to use the power of positive thinking shows them that they have more control over their environment than they realize.

It is this vision that prompted Shawn and I to co-author a book for children entitled Ripple’s Effect. Based on the principles of positive psychology, we crafted the story of a dolphin named Ripple who stands up to a bully shark named Snark. Ripple overcomes her fears by remembering that, “Dolphins were made to play and laugh and smile. It part of who you are–But happiness is also a choice.” At Harvard, Shawn studied positive outliers — people who are above average for a positive dimension like optimism or intelligence. He was able to see firsthand that while genetics may play a role, for many, happiness is something we actually have to work at; it’s a work-ethic, a skill we actually can practice.

Here are a few scientifically-proven ideas to help you boost your child’s happiness and positivity:

Give Thanks. One of the best and easiest ways to teach your child to have a more positive mindset is by practicing gratitude. Every day, ask your children to say three things that they are grateful for. Pick a consistent time to share with each other and repeat for 21 days until the skill becomes a habit. In my family, we practice saying our “gratitudes” as part of our bedtime ritual. I never ceased to be amazed by how powerful an impression even the tiniest of experiences makes on my children’s day! Research shows that this simple exercise helps the brain scan the world for the positive and helps reinforce good memories over time.

Smile. The mere act of smiling does wonders to improve our mood and outlook. When you see someone smile, mirror neurons in the brain light up at the receipt of a friendly gesture, telling our brains to smile when someone smiles at us and spreading the joy all around.

Journal. Encourage your children to take two minutes every day to write down (or at least reflect on) every detail they can remember about one positive experience from the day. It turns out our brains can’t tell much difference between visualization and actual experience, so by rehashing a high point in the day you double the effect of that positive experience.

Play. Be intentional about taking at least 15 minutes to do a fun, mindful activity together, like doing hula hoops, going on a walk, or playing hide-and-go-seek. Habits like the “Fun 15” aren’t just good exercise—they actually help your brain record a victory, which creates a “cascade of success,” where individuals want to start creating a constellation of positive habits around them, decreasing the likelihood for depression.

Every morning as I take my kindergartner to the school bus, I give her a kiss and say, “Have a great day!” I know that not every day will be great—she will undoubtedly face trials and shed many tears. But I take heart knowing that I’ve bolstered and primed her throughout the week with these little exercises to face whatever comes her way. {end}

Read at PBS.org