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Keep It Positive

The Route To Raising Positive Children

 Complaints and criticisms slip out so easily in our day-to-day lives. We mumble about the shopping cart with the wobbly wheel. We huff about the I-20 driver cruising slowly, mile after mile, in the left lane. We grumble about stepping on sticky gum in a hot parking lot.

The list of aggravations is endless and our discontent with humanity must sometimes seem enormous. We fail to realize that, “How we think affects the way we live our lives,” says Andie Weiner, Ed.D., author of More Than Saying I Love You.

This thought-behavior connection is closely examined in the 1913 novel, Pollyanna, by Eleanor Hodgman Porter. It’s the story of precious Pollyanna, an orphaned girl who transforms a Vermont town with her overtly positive attitude. After her parents’ deaths she takes the lesson of the “glad game” that she learned from her father and applies it to her new life in the care of a stern aunt. This child, who the reader would expect to be sad and morose, finds something of value in every situation, whether or not things are going her way.

The Roots of Negativity

Most of us wish our children could be as happy and adaptive as Pollyanna. None of us considers for a second, however, that we might be the reason why our children are not. Parents continually teach their children, even, unwittingly, in the absence of intentional instruction.

Setting an example of behavior through words and deeds, parents set up patterns for interpreting and reacting to circumstances. “Children do what they see their parents do. They develop the values and attitudes of their parents,” says Thurman Norville, supervisor of the Augusta office of the United Methodist Children’s Home and nationally certified Active Parenting instructor. Parents who routinely complain, therefore, are more likely to rear children who find fault and view their environment as disappointing, threatening or inadequate.

Of particular importance in a child’s formation of attitudes, are the attitudes of the mother, says Weiner. Research shows that parents, especially mothers, set the tone for how children ascribe attributes to events. “Children tend to make their thinking style similar to the mother’s, so if you’re an optimistic mom, your child is more likely to look at the world optimistically,” says Weiner, and vice versa.

But if your child climbs in the car after school complaining that lunch was gross and Jeremy is a jerk and Mrs. McWhorter is mean, it isn’t necessarily all a result of what you’ve said or done. Seeing the dark cloud instead of the silver lining is also influenced by a person’s biological makeup.

David Palmiter, Ph.D., author of Working Parents, Thriving Families: 10 Strategies that Make a Difference, says some people are simply born with “a temperamental bias to interpret things in a negative way.” For these people, the bad in situations is more salient than the good. “The stronger the genetic loading in this regard, and the greater the stress in the child’s life, the younger such thinking patterns can emerge,” he says.

Weiner and colleagues use the term pessimistic to describe a child who is a global complainer, meaning he or she takes issue with a wide variety of things rather than stating a focused complaint here and there. A pessimistic child attends to what will go wrong, sees failure as permanent and ongoing and views himself as the cause of bad events. Optimistic children, on the other hand, interpret setbacks as challenges. Undesirable circumstances are believed to be temporary and changeable.

Transforming Thought Patterns

The good news is that, whether learned or inborn or a combination of both, adults and children can transform their negative perspectives, assures Weiner, saying, “Anybody can change her pattern of thinking.” By exercising the mind to strengthen its ability to generate positive thoughts, statements and behaviors, a person can alter not just his point of view, but also his actual experiences. It’s sort of like playing Pollyanna’s “glad game” with a more formal design.

Recognizing that negative thoughts and statements are usually unfounded and nothing more than lies we tell to ourselves establishes the basic playing field. Thinking something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true. Actively practicing the changing of negative thoughts into positive ones will create new habits and patterns. Take any negative thought of your own or work with your child on a negative statement of his and try the following:

• Replace all-inclusive words such as “always” or “never” or “everyone” with words like “sometimes” or “lately” or “a few people.” Repeat the new statement or thought out loud. Likely, you’ve created a more optimistic, less permanent and more accurate assessment. The statement, “Nobody at school likes me and everyone is always mean,” becomes, “A few people at school don’t like me and sometimes they’re mean.”

• Make it more specific. An exact descriptive statement allows for problem-solving in a way that a global statement does not. It’s a lot easier to help a child develop strategies to fix “Jackson says he doesn’t like me and sometimes he’s mean to me at recess,” than to do something about “Nobody likes me and everybody is mean.”

• Test it against the facts. List details of the situation that support and those that refute the thought or statement. It helps to use pen and paper and write these down. To get started, a child might be prompted to name the children he plays with at school or the parent might give a reminder of something nice a peer recently did for the child.

• Swap the thought or statement for something that is true and generates positive feelings. “Nobody at school likes me and everyone is always mean” could be replaced with “It’s fun to jump rope with Meredith at P.E.”

Complaints With a Purpose

With persistence in these exercises, your child will soon be jumping in the carpool announcing, “Mrs. McWhorter fussed at our class for talking, but she saw me with my head down and patted my back. I’m good in her class.”

Don’t count on never hearing another whine again, though, and don’t discount the usefulness of complaining. A child’s expression of negative feelings can clue a parent into a problem that requires parental action. It can also motivate the child to take action herself, creating positive outcomes as a result of negative feelings. “If the child is able to channel his anger (or other negative emotion) into avenues of change and avoidance, then the negative becomes a positive,” says Norville. 

Even the upbeat Pollyanna falls into despair. After an accident cripples her, she struggles to find anything positive about losing the use of her legs. After some time passes, however, she acknowledges what a blessing it was to have had legs at all. “No one can be 100 percent optimistic and happy every day,” says Weiner. But we can train our minds, and help our children to train theirs, to keep from wallowing in the dumps for too long.

Lucy Adams is the author of Tuck Your Skirt in Your Panties and Run. She lives in Thomson, Ga., with her husband and their four children.

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