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The Science of Parenthood: Raising Optimistic Kids

A look at the evolution of positive and negative emotions, and the smartest way to boost your kid's self-esteem.



Note: This is part of a Diablo blog series on psychology research and kids.

In my last post, I gave you a run-down of how to encourage your child to have an “I can do anything with effort” mindset. Now, I will introduce you to the science of positive psychology, so you can learn how a more optimistic outlook helps safeguard children from issues such as depression, promiscuity, negative social behavior, drug use, and isolation. You’ll also learn how to boost your kid’s self esteem, in ways that are backed by science.

Understanding Emotions

First, let’s talk about where these negative feelings come from. The evolution of feeling bad predates modern man by tens of thousands of years. Natural selection likely favored the growth of negative emotions to save our very lives in a time of scarcity and violence. No doubt, those ancestors who felt negative emotions the strongest likely fought and fled the best, and passed on their relevant genes.Abby Medcalf, PhD

Positive emotions, though, also had a grand purpose in evolution. Feeling good broadens our intellectual, physical, and social resources, and helps us build reserves for future threats or opportunities. When we’re in a positive mood, people like us better, and friendship, love, and important coalitions cement. Also, our mindset is expansive, tolerant, and creative, and we’re more likely to be open to new ideas and experiences.

Martin Seligman of the University of Pennsylvania, and the “father” of positive psychology, breaks down optimism into what he calls our “explanatory styles.”  You can think of this as the internal dialogue you have in your head all day—your running commentary, if you will, about everything that’s happening. It’s how you explain events to yourself. Let’s say you drip toothpaste on your shirt in the morning. You might say to yourself, “Well, I didn’t want to wear this shirt anyway,” and then change your shirt and move on with your day. Or you might say, “Darn!  This stuff always happens to me! Why can’t I do anything right? I can’t even brush my teeth without messing up. Now my whole day is going to be like this!” You can see the difference and imagine what mood you’ll be in, depending on which way you speak to yourself.

Kids & Self-Esteem

Now let’s talk about optimistic children. To do that, we need to start with some background on self-esteem. It’s important to understand that self-esteem is a feeling, but feelings are rooted in the success of our commerce with the world. In other words, what a child does (mastery, persistence, overcoming frustration and boredom, meeting challenges) is at the core of self-esteem. Self-esteem is not shifted with affirmations—it’s changed with mastery.

Pessimists
- Are 8 times more likely to become depressed when bad events happen
- Do worse at school and sports
- Have less demanding jobs than their talents warrant
- Have worse physical health and shorter lives Have rockier interpersonal relations

Optimists
- Have better health and live longer
- Are more productive, with higher income
- Endure pain better and take more health and safety precautions
- Display more empathy and are more willing to donate more time and money
- Are less likely to use drugs or alcohol abusively Are less likely to have unprotected sex

The way parents, teachers, and professionals go about bolstering children's self-esteem can sometimes erode their sense of self-worth. Feelings of self-esteem and happiness develop as side effects of mastering challenges, working successfully, overcoming frustration and boredom, and winning. The feeling of self-esteem is a by-product of doing well at something. So, the key is not to encourage children to feel good, but to teach them how to do well.

The evolution of self-esteem has been a long and winding road. In 1969, The Psychology of Self-Esteem by Nathaniel Branden was published—and it was decided that self-esteem is the single most important facet of a person. In 1984, the California state legislature created an official self-esteem task force and wrote a kind of self-esteem policy into law in California schools. This is when every kid started getting a trophy, and there were no more red pencils for teachers.

Sadly, California had not done its homework before making these sweeping changes. In 2001, Roy Baumeister, a known guru on self-esteem, was asked by the Association for Psychological Science to review 15,000 scholarly articles written on self-esteem over a 30-year period. Baumeister found that only 200 had used a scientifically sound way to measure self-esteem and outcomes. He went on to conclude that high self-esteem didn’t improve grades or career achievement, reduce alcohol and drug use, or reduce sexual activity or violence among youth, as California officials had thought.

In fact, those born after the self-esteem movement are suffering depression at about 10 times the rate of people born in the first third of the century, and it is affecting people at a younger and younger age.

What Parents Can Do

  • First and foremost, give children accurate feedback. Exaggerated blame produces guilt and shame beyond what’s needed to galvanize change. No blame at all erodes responsibility and nullifies the will to change. If you tell your kid he is lazy, rather than that he isn’t trying hard enough, your child will begin to believe that not only is he lazy, but that his failures come from permanent and unchangeable factors.
  • Give feedback with an optimistic explanatory style, whenever reality allows. If your child is at fault, it’s important to focus on specific lapses, if truth allows, and avoid blaming the child’s character or ability.
  • Be mindful of your own behavior and words. When you mess something up, what words do you say? If something bad happens in your world, how do you react? Think about what your child is hearing. What is your child seeing you do? Biology is a powerful force, but so is environment. Our children will parrot our behaviors and words more than we’d probably like to admit. 

About the author: Abby Medcalf has been in the mental health and addiction field for over 25 years. She holds a masters in counseling psychology and a PhD in organizational psychology. She is a popular keynote speaker regarding parenting, couples, families, and addiction, and has presented at many companies and organizations throughout the United States. Abby has a private practice in Berkeley and also works at New Bridge Foundation, a non-profit drug and alcohol treatment facility in Berkeley. You can contact her at abbymedcalf@mac.com.

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Added: 2017-03-07

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