It’s all about optimism. Not the ‘walking about with a mindless grin on your face’ sort of optimism. Not the Pollyanna version either. It is the kind of optimism that underlies the belief that I can probably solve this problem, and even if I don’t, I will have learned a lot along the way.
When my daughter was six she went through a tough time at school. It was no different from the kinds of problems most children face as they learn how to get along with people. Every day we would ask her about the problems she was having. And things kept getting worse.
As a circuit breaker we decided that from now on we would not greet her with questions like “Did Christy give you a hard time today?” Instead we would ask her to tell us some of the good things that had happened. Only when we had a couple of those on the table would we give her the opportunity to explore any of the problems. It worked. Gradually she began to enjoy school again and the morning grizzles disappeared.
I started thinking more about this a few years back. I was attending a couple of lectures as a wifely duty. You know the sort of thing – it’s important to him so I must fly the spousal flag. Sitting in the lecture theatre it occurred to me that I had a choice. I could maintain my ‘bored but supportive’ stance, or I could look for something interesting. I could make a choice, and I did. There was a lot that I didn’t understand, but within that unfamiliar territory I discovered several fascinating way points. And it got me wondering.
Why do we bother? What is it that makes some people bound through life while others lurk in the shadows? Why do some kids stride forward bravely at every challenge and others stand at the back, scuffing their feet and looking at the ground? Maybe it is because they have lost their optimism, the belief that they will succeed and even if they don’t they will have enjoyed trying and will have learned some new things along the way.
As adults we can help our kids preserve their optimism. They certainly come with it into the world. No baby ever doubted he would talk, or walk, or run. Watch the determination of the toddler to climb up on the couch and you see optimism in action. Our five year olds enter school filled with optimism and eagerness to learn. When I taught a combined grade one and two I used to think I could walk into the room with large sheets of newspapers, tell them we were going to spend the next half hour tearing them up into tiny bits and they would all cheer. They were enthusiastic about everything in life, so optimistic. It’s around grade three that we start hearing them say “I can’t do that”. What goes wrong?
I think one of the things that goes wrong is that we start to focus too much on the end products of kids’ efforts, rather than on the processes. We do the same thing with adults. By doing this we create too many failures. Too much failure makes us into pessimists.
I am trying hard to be an artist. Not all my paintings work. Sometimes the best thing I can do with a finished work is to paint over it with white paint and start a new one. What was that painting? A failure? If that’s the case then I ought to put away my brushes because I have a lot of ‘failures’. But I learned so much about composition, about mixing colors and about what not to do next time. So the end product may not have been a success but the process certainly was. I learned stuff and kept my optimism intact.
A class of seven year olds has just had a spelling lesson that focuses on the spelling pattern ‘ph’. They have made lists of ‘ph’ words, and looked for ‘ph’ words in their reading. At the end of the week there is a spelling test and one little girl spells the word like this: ellephant. The teacher marks it incorrect and the tally of failures for the week goes up by one for that child. If mention had been made of the correct initial letter, the correct number of syllables, the correct terminal letter and the correct use of the ‘ph’ she would have had a 4:1 ratio of successes over failures and come out way ahead. Optimism preserved!
If we want our kids to become skilled thinkers, to exercise the Habits of Mind that characterize successful people, we need to ensure they remain optimistic thinkers who believe that they will gain as much from the acts of thinking and trying as they will from the end product.