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How to Raise An Optimist

It was a gorgeous day, not a cloud on the horizon. Still, my 4-year-old, Ava, looked out the window and groaned, "I don't want to go to the park; it's going to rain." Another morning, about a week later, she could hardly contain her excitement about the coming day. "I love everything, Mommy!" she shouted, twirling around in her pajamas. If I could have bottled her mood, I'd be a millionaire.

But I'm confused. Will Ava be an Eeyore, one of those people destined to see the glass half empty, expecting rainy days all her life? Or will she be a Tigger, a girl who bounces back from disappointment and soars through life, her glass always brimming over?

I was a glass-half-empty girl myself, constantly being reminded by my mom to "put on a happy face." So when I see the same kind of negativity express itself in my own child, I'm concerned. I hate to see her sad before there's a reason or worried before anything goes wrong.

Above all, I don't want to see her prone to all sorts of problems that researchers have observed in pessimists. Turns out, Mom was right: Optimism is good for you. Positive people are healthier and just plain happier. They're more secure and perform better at school and at work; each success spurs them on to higher achievement.

But a cheerful nature isn't about using a smiley face to mask unhappy feelings. It's a positive outlook that springs from enthusiasm and confidence. As Suzanne Muro, a mom in Washington, DC, puts it, "I'd like my three-year-old to learn that he can change the things he isn't happy with, that he can take an active role in shaping his own life no matter what. That's what optimism really means to me."

Who wouldn't wish this on their offspring? Even if you have a tendency to look on the dark side of things, there are ways to give your child the tools she'll need to develop an optimistic personality:

Work On the Problem Together

How can you brighten up a cloudy day or keep a child on track when he wants to quit? Lend a hand when he stumbles. When Muro's son, Ryan, was afraid to go down the slide alone, she stayed by his side until he felt brave enough. Now when he slides by himself, she tells him, "Wasn't that fun to go down all alone?"

Donald Davis, a father of a 10-year-old and a 7-year-old in New York City, also uses the you-can-do-it approach. "When my son tried out for baseball a couple of years ago, he got very discouraged and sat out the first practice," he says. Davis bought a Wiffle ball and helped him work on his technique. With an improved game and attitude, his son now loves the sport.

Give Him a New Point Of View

Astrid Nilssen, a mom of three in East Meredith, New York, tries to put her 8-year-old's problems in perspective and not let them mushroom, which seems to quell his natural tendency to brood.

When Andreas was younger, for example, he'd complain that his whole day was ruined if his older sister refused to play with him. "I'd remind him that just because something wasn't right that very minute didn't mean the rest of the day couldn't be good," she says.

Play A Game

Many moms are good at finding creative solutions to nettlesome attitude problems. "Maya has a kind of worst-case-scenario attitude  -- definitely inherited from me," says Los Angeles mom Hope Edelman of her 6-year-old. On the other hand, her younger daughter, Eden, 2, is "a pretty happy-go-lucky kid by nature."

Concerned about Maya, Edelman invented "the hypothesis game": "The two of us try to guess the outcome of a situation in advance. Then we see whose prediction comes true."

Edelman started the game last year, when Maya wanted to see the movie Daddy Day Care. "Maya wanted to see it so badly that she predicted Eden could sit through it, and I bet she couldn't," says Edelman.

Eden lasted through it, and Maya's optimism paid off. Now when Maya's negative about something (like missing the school bus), her mom reminds her of when she won by betting on a positive outcome. "Some days, that can change her mind," Edelman says.

Getting a gloomy kid back on track can be as simple as changing the subject. "When Ryan seems sad, I ask him about something fun we did recently or a book that made him laugh," says Muro.

Bring Out Her Best

"Recognize your child's attributes," suggests Martin Seligman, Ph.D., coauthor of The Optimistic Child. "If she shares a toy with another child, say, 'Look how kind you can be.'"

Kids who have their parents' unwavering support and encouragement are more likely to believe in themselves. By pointing out your child's abilities and how she can use them to change a situation for the better, you can instill the confidence she needs to make her mark in the world.

Do Some Detective Work

A sick or stressed child can suddenly seem like a downbeat one, as I've discovered. Before jumping to conclusions about Ava, I mentally go through a checkoff list. Has she had anything to eat or drink recently? Has she napped? If your child is in some sort of structured activity and seems more irritable or tired or sadder than usual, that could be a sign he's overwhelmed, says Richard Gallagher, Ph.D., director of the Parenting Institute at New York University's Child Study Center.

Often, a child may not be old enough to master the new skills that activity calls for, but he'll blame himself for not being able to keep up. And that can make him feel pessimistic about his abilities.

If your child still wants to do the activity, let him know how he can work things out for the best. When Gallagher's son, Ben, was 8, he was mad at himself for not being the fastest kid on the soccer field. Gallagher told Ben that he didn't have to be a star; the important thing was to play hard, meet others, and enjoy himself. He stuck it out and played for five more years.

Look On the Bright Side

If you want your child to have a sunny outlook, have one yourself  -- and make sure your actions reflect your outlook, says Gallagher. Whenever she talks to Ryan about his day, Muro plays up the positive side of things: "If we go to the zoo, I ask him to tell me about the animal he liked best."

Another good way is to share your child's natural enthusiasm, whether it's over the drawing she just scribbled or a school project. And even when her eagerness falters, it helps to remind her of what she'll enjoy. For example, when Ava told me she didn't want to go to a bowling birthday party because it wouldn't be fun, I said, "Even if you don't like the bowling part, you always have fun when you're with your friends."

"I do?" she asked.

"Sure, and there will be cake and ice cream."

That did it. She broke into a smile.

As my daughter grows more mature and sturdy, I've noticed that both optimism and pessimism play important roles. She's pessimistic about things that are new and scary to her or that are connected with a bad experience, like a fall off her new bike. But as she racks up accomplishments  -- doing backward somersaults, drawing animals and people, learning the alphabet, and conquering the bike  -- each one seems to give her a slightly better outlook on the future. And as she goes forward, armed with each empowering experience, I feel confident she'll have the optimism she'll need to enjoy her life.

Until she becomes a teenager, of course.


Elizabeth Cohen is the author of a memoir, A House on Beartown Road. She is working on another.