I don’t have any children – yet. The closest I have to a child right now is my dog, but as I grow nearer to the age of having children, I feel anxious, nervous, and excited all at once. Well, mostly, I feel nervous. Okay, let’s be honest here… I freak out. I worry if I will be a good mother…if I will have enough time to spend with my children…if I will drive them crazy…if I will say the right things…if I will remember to tell them to stop and smell the roses before rushing them onto the school bus in the morning. I worry if I will raise them to be responsible, kind, honest, courageous, and happy. Some nights, sleep just does not come to my eyes, and I lay wide-awake worrying about the “ifs”.
The less self-critical and mildly-deluded side of me says, “Hey… I have a degree in positive psychology. What could I possibly do wrong? With all of this knowledge, I should be able to raise super-kids!” When I shared this with my own mom, she chuckled and said, “Try not to over-think this too much. I think raising kids is more art than it is science.” Then she told me a story. “When you were young and our family first moved to the United States, your dad and I worked a lot, so we would take turns putting you on the bus to go to kindergarten. As a young father, your dad did the best he could, but would sometimes send you to school with your shirt on backwards and your brother’s pants on, with your hair in 3 jagged, freakish ponytails. In your lunchbox, he would pack you a cucumber sandwich – he thought that was a good meal. Your teachers called me so many times to ask if everything was okay at home, and I would sometimes cry at night feeling guilty that I was traumatizing you. And look… you turned out just fine.”
It turned out my parents did a lot of things right, doing much to promote my development while providing me with the most basic foundations for a good life – love, support, and a safe home. Here are some things I’ve learned from positive psychology (and my parents) about raising kids well:
• Opportunities for Mastery – Martin Seligman explains in The Optimistic Child that mastery results from a “contingency between action and outcome,” and “noncontingency or uncontrollability results in passivity and depression”.
My parents provided me with a wealth of opportunities to gain mastery in many different domains of life, not just in school. They urged me to play the piano, play the flute, take dance and art classes, write poems, sing in a choir, play soccer and go ice-skating. I wasn’t good at everything I tried, but I grew up feeling like I could do just about anything. This feeling led me to seek out new and novel experiences with a sense that I had control over my environment. The bountiful opportunities my parents provided for me also helped me learn about my character strengths by encouraging me to choose which interests to pursue. I learned quickly that I was good at some things, but not others, and that was okay. Although my mom wanted me to become a concert pianist, I could not sit still for more than 5 minutes. Instead of pushing her desires on me, she recognized my love for doing cartwheels and playing football with my older brother, and encouraged me to pursue activities that enabled me to harness my kinesthetic nature.
• Character Strengths – Discovering and finding ways to use character strengths in daily life correlate highly with life satisfaction, thriving and flourishing, in youth and throughout life: “Research shows that certain strengths of character—for example, hope, kindness, social intelligence, self-control, and perspective—can buffer against the negative effects of stress and trauma, preventing or mitigating disorders in their wake” (Park, 2004).
My parents modeled moral behavior and taught me to be fair and honest. Attending church provided me with yet more ways to strengthen my moral compass. Furthermore, they instilled in me good habits (like always saying “thank you” and keeping my promises), one of the foundations for developing good character. When I eventually chose to pursue figure skating, this activity also set the stage for me to experience persistence, self-determination, commitment, and dedication.
• Resilience – Over the last 2 weeks, I attended the Penn Resiliency Training and learned how to teach school-aged kids the skills to help them become more resilient. Many of this month’s contributors have already described the mechanisms behind some of these skills: Senia Maymin wrote about using the A.P.E. method, Nick Hall explained how to use our ABC’s in the face of adversity, and Kathryn Britton illustrated how reframing can help us cope with situations at work. Research has shown that there is a strong correlation between a mother’s optimism or pessimism and her child or children’s own outlook on life.
As with every family, we experienced many challenges and setbacks together. My parents never had resilience training, but in the face of trying times, both of my parents modeled resilient behavior, showing my brother and me that there is always a light at the end of the tunnel (or ways to find other tunnels), no matter how narrow that tunnel seemed. Conversely, they showed us how to celebrate our successes, and how to use that momentum to fuel our future endeavors.
With mother’s day behind us, and father’s day coming near, I can’t help but feel eternally grateful to my parents for all they have been to me throughout my life. We weren’t perfect family, but whose is? Perhaps the greatest gift I can give my child is to find happiness and success in my own life: To become an exemplar of optimism, hope, gratitude, and love, and to become a shining example of how to awaken to each day welcoming the wealth of experiences, relationships and opportunities the world has to offer. I hope, one day, I will become my child’s hero, as my parents have become to me, and I hope that my children will become someone’s hero someday as well. Maybe raising kids is indeed more art than science, but I have been sleeping a little better at night knowing that the science of positive psychology has provided me with better brushes and a more-vivid palette with which to craft my future as a parent.
*Note: A song inspired this post – If you would like to hear a wonderfully inspirational song about parenthood, please download Corinne Bailey Rae’s song, Butterfly. The lyrics to the song can be found here. I’d also love to hear comments and thoughts from parents about how positive psychology has influenced your role as mom or dad.
Park, N. (2004). Character Strengths and Positive Youth Development. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 591 (1): 40-54.
Seligman, M. E. P. (1995, 2007). The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience. New York: Mariner Books.
I agree with your mother — don’t overthink it too much. Perfection is not required. In fact, I think perfect parents would be a distinct handicap. Where do we learn our first lessons about differences in point of view and differences in strengths? What do we push against to become independent?
My mother once told me that the only people who think they have being a parent really figured out are parents of a particularly compliant only child. (Since she has 5 children, she certainly learned otherwise.) The rest of us relearn humility all the time because our children keep surprising us with new problems that don’t match anything in the books and we have to make up answers as we go. Hey, that’s what makes it such a great adventure.
One succinct piece of advice I learned from Miss Manners, many years ago. Question: “How do you teach your children to say please and thank you?” Answer: “You nag.”
One other thing I’ve learned is that home can be the place where it is safe to express the negative emotions that a child holds in all day. So expect some nasty weather along the way, and know you are being the refuge. That’s a form of reframing that has really served me well.
It is a nice post, i also learned a lot from this post. Thanks
This is both heartfelt and scholarly, thoughtful and beautiful. Your mother is right about the “art” part (I have two kids), and sometimes you do mess up being a parent. Setting a good example helps.
My daughter, who is 19, remembers something my husband and I told her often while growing up: “We love you even when you are difficult, and even when we are difficult, too.” Recently when we had a disagreement she said it back to me. It made it difficult to stay angry!
Life is not always easy, and there is no one perfect way to do things. Love and respect help make it possible to transcend the bumps along the way, both big and small.
Thanks for sharing ways that Positive Psychology works in everyday life 🙂
I like your model. First we teach our children what unconditional love means by modeling it for them. Then we give them opportunities to practice on our own imperfections! Another reason imperfections are important in parents!
Hi Kathryn, Sherri, and Akriti,
Thank you all for your thoughts and comments, and for sharing your own experiences with parenting. I really do appreciate it!
The more time I spend talking to parents, and sharing some of the things I learned through positive psychology, the more encouraged and empowered I feel. 🙂
Thank you again!
I love how this post covers so many aspects.
And I think it’s great and not a problem to say, “Hey! There are a lot of things I don’t know!”
It’s like a great professor at business school – John Roberts – once said, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” And that’s ok too!
I loved your article! As a parent of recent college andh high school grads, I keep saying, “I wish I had known all of this when my children were young.” As your story and your mothers’ comment so beautifully remind us, there’s an art to this and most of us probably get some of it right much of the time. Positive Psychology helps greatly to reinforce our best instincts and to show us new paths when we need them.
Thanks for the lovely article,