The Optimistic Child

The Optimistic Child

By teaching children skills of optimism, it is possible to “immunize” or safeguard them against episodes of depression. This concept is at the core of The Optimistic Child.

The Big Ideas!

  • Pessimistic children are at a much higher risk of becoming depressed than optimistic children.
  • In numerous long-term studies, Seligman and colleagues discovered a link between pessimism or dwelling on the most catastrophic causes of any adversity and depression.
  • Optimism is not only a tendency with which some are born, it is also a learned skill. Even those who are naturally pessimistic in nature can master the skill of optimism.
  • Studies indicate people are far more depressed now than just 100 years ago.
  • Seligman and colleagues show adults how to teach children the skills of optimism with specific skills and exercises.
  • Optimism can help children thwart depression, achieve more in school, and improve physical health.
  • In adults, pessimism can be a significant barrier, not only to mental wellness, but also to overall life satisfaction.
  • When people face adversity, the narrative they use to explain the adversity is known as an “explanatory style.” Explanatory styles can be categorized as optimistic or pessimistic based on three different dimensions (more info below).

Neutrino’s Nutshell

How can a parent or teacher provide youth with the skills to stave off depression? If you are thinking it has something to do with self-esteem, Seligman would disagree. In fact, he blasts the self-esteem movement and its encouragement to make children simply ”feel good” about themselves. False praise may lead to pessimism as children perceive the insincerity of parents and teachers. Seligman posits, “In order for your child to experience mastery, it is necessary for him to fail, to feel bad, and try again repeatedly until success occurs. None of these steps can be circumvented. Failure and feeling bad are necessary building blocks for ultimate success and feeling good.”

One of the primary ways to help your child become more optimistic is to help change their explanatory style. What’s an explanatory style? When someone faces an adversity, the way they explain that event to themselves and others is known as an explanatory style. These narratives are evaluated around three dimensions.

  • Permanent vs. Temporary: Events either change across time or remain stable.
  • Pervasive vs. Specific: Events are universal or specific to a particular domain.
  • Personal vs. Impersonal: Causes of an event are within oneself or outside of oneself.

Someone with an optimistic explanatory style would characterize an adversity as temporary, specific, and impersonal. The pessimist, on the other hand, sees adversity as permanent, pervasive, and personal. As an example, a child who fails a test in school may internally believe “I’m a loser.” Clearly, this is largely pessimistic point of view as it is enduring and can be applied to nearly any domain of life. Conversely, the optimistic child who has failed a test will tend to think in ways that can be shaped, maintaining control over one’s destiny, as it were. The optimistic child will say “I failed this test because I didn’t study enough.” This explanation is specific and leaves doors open for improvement and change.

In addition explanatory styles, the book delves into other skills such as learning about link between thoughts, feelings, and actions; catching and evaluating thoughts; creating alternative thoughts; and keeping things in perspective to name a few. Studies developed by Seligman and his team in Philadelphia-area schools, skills such as these can reduce the risk of depression, improve academic performance, and boost physical health in children.


Raising children, I realized, is more than fixing what is wrong with them.  It is about identifying and amplifying their strengths and virtues, and helping them find the niche where they can live these positive traits to the fullest.”

“Optimism will not make the problems disappear.  On the contrary, it allows your child to get to the root of the problem so that she can focus on correcting the situation.”

IMEO (In My Eudaimonian Opinion)

This book is fascinating, even if you do not have or work with children. This is a book which adults can read and sit back in shock at how easily your world view back can be traced back to the one so dearly held as children. For the parent, the information Seligman has provided in this book is invaluable. For an adult who was once a child, it’s a way to look closely at how you act in, and react to, the world now.

This book is practical, practical, practical! It goes well beyond theory into actionable exercises for both adults and children.  Not only can these exercises help increase optimism, they help one maintain hope during the most trying life experiences. Keep this in mind-if you’re more of a half empty person when you start reading this book, at the very least, your glass will look very different when you’re done.

Take some action, humanoid!

1. Identify your own explanatory style. One of the primary ways to help your child and yourself to become more optimistic is to increase your awareness of your own explanatory style. Next time you face an adversity, log your internal and external explanation of the events. Evaluate these thoughts against the three facets of explanatory styles to see if you tend to lean toward an optimistic or pessimistic mindset.

2. Teach your youthling about explanatory styles. Open conversations with your child about how they perceive themselves, how they perceive difficult and challenging situations and how they resolve problems give you a comprehensive picture of their worldview.

3. Teach your youthlings about the link between thoughts-actions. The automatic ideas which pop into your mind are what most consistently cause your reactions or to feel and behave in certain ways.

4. Remember that optimism is a skill. This awareness can change the way you view the world. Optimism is the embodiment of engagement with the world whereas pessimism is a loss of opportunity.

The Deets

The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience
Authors: Martin E. Seligman
Publication Date: 1996

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