Photo by Nolan Simmons on Unsplash
Photo by Nolan Simmons on Unsplash

Is Your Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

The optimist sees the doughnut, the pessimist sees the hole. – Anonymous

One day, the phone rang, and a little boy answered. “May I speak to your parents?”

“They're busy.”

“Oh. Is anybody else there?”

“The police.”

“Can I speak to them?”

“They're busy.”

“Oh. Is anybody else there?”

“The firemen.”

“Can I speak to them?”

“They're busy.”

“So let me get this straight—your parents, the police, and the firemen are there, but they're all busy? What are they doing?”

“Looking for me.”

The young boy in this story provides the essence of optimism versus pessimism during his last statement: “They’re looking for me.” The optimist hears this as the hope-filled reality that these people are all out looking to rescue the boy. On the other hand, the pessimist hears this as the depressing-filled reality that the boy is in BIG TROUBLE. What do you hear? Your answer to this question can help determine if you tend to be optimistic or pessimistic.

The dictionary defines pessimism as a tendency to stress the negative or unfavorable or to take the gloomiest possible view. Whereas optimism is a tendency to expect the best possible outcome or dwell on the most hopeful aspects of a situation.

Why is this important to parenting? A child’s ability to see the glass as “half empty” or “half full” is directly related to your perspective. If you are overly pessimistic then chances are that your child will develop pessimism.

Our perspective in life is of vast importance, yet it’s something that we don’t often focus on. For example, a 70-year study of personality traits suggests that pessimism is a risk factor for early death, especially among men. A pessimistic personality may also lead to poor problem-solving ability, social difficulties, and risky decision-making. Taken together, these variables put the pessimist at higher risk of untimely death, say the researchers. Such a person is less likely to avoid or escape potentially hazardous situations.

People who learn to maintain an optimistic attitude may not only avoid depression, they may actually improve their physical health. Studies show optimists report fewer adverse physical problems and took a more active role in maintaining their health.

Martin Seligman, researcher and director of clinical training at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and author of Learned Optimism, found children who scored highest for pessimism were most likely later to suffer depression. Optimists are more resistant to infectious illness and are better at fending off chronic diseases of middle age.

The problem for our children is if something goes wrong, pessimists tend to have hopeless thoughts. They think, “I always screw up,” “I'll never get it right,” or they label themselves as “stupid” or “idiot.”

Fostering Optimism

What can we do to foster optimism in our children? Plenty. First, encourage your child to speak more kindly to himself. Instead of negative labels like “stupid”, your child might learn to say, “Things didn't go well today, but I learned a lot, and I can do better tomorrow.”

Secondly, teach your child not to dwell on bad events that happen to them, at least not immediately afterwards. If he fails an important exam or does poorly out on the playground, help him to do something fun that will act as a distraction from his troubles. Studies show that if you think about problems in a negative frame of mind, you come up with fewer solutions and can sink deeper into depression. By improving mood and self-esteem, kids with pessimistic tendencies can break that cycle and free themselves to think more creatively.

Thirdly, help your child view setbacks as normal and can be overcome by his actions. Setbacks plummet pessimists into helplessness and despair. In other words, if your child believes that nothing will affect an outcome, he will learn to give up and feel sad. On the other hand, if he feels a sense of control, both his activity and his enjoyment will increase. Optimists roll up their sleeves and learn how to problem-solve ways around life’s obstacles.

What can you do to help your child to increase the ratio of good thoughts to bad thoughts?

  • Before your child falls asleep, review the good things and bad things that happened that day. Ask questions like: “What did you like doing today?” or “Did anything bad happen today?”
  • Tell him or her what you noticed they did that was positive.
  • Allow the last thoughts your child has before drifting into sleep to be positive.

You never know, these positive thoughts might become the material of “sweat dreams”.

Greg Smalley, PsyD
Website | + posts

Dr. Smalley previously served as the director of Marriage Ministries for The Center for Healthy Relationships. He is the author or co-author of twelve books concerning marriages and families, and currently serves as the executive director of Marriage and Family Formation at Focus on the Family.

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