Monday, May 22, 2006

Learning how to see the glass differently...

You could say, it is in my nature to be pessimistic. I have a dark sense of humor that is often self-deprecating. I make jokes outlining the worst possible case scenario in moments of tension. And, yet, even in my blog profile I have defined myself as a "self-recovered pessimist." A big part of me doesn't feel like I am a pessimist really. I try to believe the very best in people. I try to focus on the good things in my life or in the world each day, pushing away the bad thoughts when I can. I am fiercely hard on myself, most definitely. But, I have really come a long way in learning to love myself and how to cut myself a break from that perfect standard I used to hold myself so firmly to in life.

Society tends to define people's personas in two ways: optimistic or pessimistic. You are either a glass-is-half-full person or you see it as half-empty. No matter where I fall in those categories, I hold to the belief that how you look at your life can determine a lot of things about where it will end up.

Growing up, I got clear examples of both personality types right at my dinner table each night. My father is the half-full sort, believing in others almost to a fault. I watched as he achieved many great things for a person who never attended college and barely got out of high school. He was a city council member in our hometown, he became mayor, and he opened his own business there and followed a dream. But, I also watched as people with bad motivations took advantage of his good nature, forcing him into debt from that business and into years of hard life recovering from it. Still, I feel like I got what optimism I have in my soul from this man and I am very thankful for it.

My mother is quite the opposite type of person. Guarded and often disposed to predicting the worst will happen, she would verbalize her fears with me as I grew up quite often . She might not have said them before something negative happened, but I could always guarantee that if I failed at something or, worse yet, if I was somehow slighted for something in life, she would be there to say she knew that it was going to happen. She would say these things always happen to her family and it wasn't fair. But, to her credit, in other moments she'd tell me tales of popular girls she'd grown up with who never amounted to anything, and give me inspiring talks about growing up to be whatever I wanted to be. While my mother's pessimism and negative labeling of people continues to disturb me to this day, I know that her deep love of her children and her talks about being an independent woman are reasons why I have great strengths today too.

Lately, I have come to a slow and painful realization. We all know that having children is a very difficult job. But, seeing your own faults played out in those children, or magnified to a larger proportion in one, is a fear that I could never imagine in my life. My son has started openly showing his pessimistic side--believing the worst will happen, having low self-esteem, and talking quite a lot about how his life is unfair. It has gotten to the point that his Dad and I are concerned and actively working to build him up again.

For example, recently he had a homework assignment to create his own planet after one he'd learned about in class. The planet could be made of anything and he was to use his imagination and then bring his creation to class to be hung around the room with his other peers. We had a fun afternoon making his "Pluto." He chose Pluto because he liked the name, he told me. It reminded him of "Playdoh." So, we hopped on the internet and looked up facts about Pluto. We were excited because Pluto is a planet no spacecraft has ever landed upon, and even satellite photos have not clearly defined what it looks like. Our canvas was blank for how we'd make it look! After our research and a trip to the store for supplies, we sat down to do our work.

"Mom? I think I changed my mind. Maybe I should do Earth instead?"
"Why do you think you should change?"
"I don't know, a lot of kids have done Earth already and no one has done Pluto."
"Well! That's a good reason to do Pluto if you asked me! Then, it will be very special and not like anyone else's."
After some cajoling, he agreed and we had a wonderful time hot gluing strips of felt around his styrofoam ball, sticking glittered stars all over it and then creating a hanging device that had signs on it describing facts about the planet. When it was all said and done, Pluto looked pretty great and he happily showed it off to his Dad that evening.

The next morning, I drove my son to school so he could easily transport the planet. As we're pulling up to the drop-off, he blurted out in a panicked voice,

"What if no one likes my planet, Mom?"
"What? Of course they will like it. It's great!"
"No, what if people make fun of it? What if they say it looks dumb? And what if they make fun of me?"
"Do you think it looks dumb?"
"Well, no. I like it."
"Then, that's all that matters. I don't think it looks dumb either and neither does your Dad or your sister. If someone makes fun of your planet, then you tell them they are not being very nice and ignore them. Your planet is great and don't let anyone tell you differently."
Pluto turned out to be a hit and everyone liked what he had done. But, this predicting the worst thing has really ramped up over the past few months. And, it tears at a really tender place in my heart that is already in need of healing. And, I'm left wondering: how do we as parents protect our kids from falling into a mindset that could plague them with sadness in their life?

Tonight, I have been online researching pessimism in children. I've found a few books I will read on helping children have confidence and how to teach kids to be more optimistic in their lives. The statistics I have read are what I already suspected: children who are pessimistic have a greater chance of low self esteem, depression, and problems in school. Parents dispositions and outlook are a key factor in whether their children become optimists or pessimists.

As a person who is very hard on myself, it is painful to realize that something about my personality may have made a mark on my son's soul. Have I not let him been independent enough? Have I not praised him enough? Does my sarcastic nature and perfectionism somehow make my son think he sees the glass as half empty?

I am certain that I am some of the reason for his negativity. And, I intend to focus on helping him develop a better disposition and more confidence in life. But, I also realize that to help him become a "half-full" type of person, I have to learn to become one myself. Then, I stumbled across something that caught my attention. Is it possible that you can smother those negative habits and thoughts that you've had your whole life, and learn to leave a more optimistic life?

It is in my nature to be pessimistic, but it is time that I break that negative cycle and teach my children that the glass is more than just half-full. In fact, it is overflowing with beauty and happiness. It is spilling over with gifts just waiting for them to open. Because, simply put--life is too short to spend seeing only the empty.


Blogger FRIDAY'S CHILD said...

He just needs more push.

5:19 AM, May 22, 2006  
Blogger Suburban Turmoil said...

Well, that's a great motivation to work on your own outlook. I'm glad you and your husband have recognized it so early and are working to change his attitude. That's half the battle right there.

Good luck!

12:25 PM, May 22, 2006  
Blogger Alison said...

I'm a pessimist, too, but there is a book out there called Learned Optimism, which looked pretty intriguing when I read an excerpt in a magazine one time! I think I even checked it from the library out after at least I was optimistic enough to think it might help, even though I'm not sure any of it has carried over until now! ;-)

I'm glad the Pluto project was a hit after all, and I hope a few more positive outcomes like that will help your son to realize things might go right after all!

(Though frankly, I think optimism can be a problem, too, if it causes someone to ignore red flags or to avoid working at things because they assume it'll all work out okay regardless. I have often called my husband a "pathological optimist"! And he's usually right to be optimistic, but not always. Of course, I'm really the one with a pathology because I've been known to regret bad choices I didn't even make just because I came CLOSE to making them! Ugh.)

1:00 PM, May 22, 2006  
Blogger Nicole said...

I know what you mean. My first-born is so much like me I wonder if it's in the genes or learned behavior.

I think there are ways to "re-train" your thought patterns and by being aware of them that is a huge step. We all tend to repeat what's comfortable and it can take time to make a change.

I know you'll both be alright! HAng in there!

3:23 PM, May 22, 2006  
Blogger Karen Rani said...

I agree with Lucinda. Great job recognizing it. He'll be fine.

8:22 PM, May 22, 2006  
Blogger Dipu said...

It's a scary thing to realize, and a good reason why some people aren't or shouldn't be parents. But I'm confident you can overcome your own tendencies and lead your kids in the right direction.

10:56 PM, May 22, 2006  
Blogger DebbieDoesLife said...

One of my kiddos is just like yours. Our kids will come preprogrammed with certain traits and I think our job as parents is to help them improve in certain areas. This is one where you can help him to see the bright side when it is in his nature to find the faults. Recognizing your role in this is the hardest part - so your half way there and a great mom.

3:11 PM, May 23, 2006  
Anonymous Jennifer said...

This post is so full of insight. Sometimes the hardest part of making a change is actually seeing the need. Or the desire. You couldn't be more right, though. Life *is* entirely too short.

6:30 PM, May 23, 2006  
Blogger Occidental Girl said...

I know what you mean about your fear for your kids.

After I read this post I was struck by the thought that the way you've worked through this is so insightful.

You've recognized something you think might be a problem and are not bemoaning the fact, but rather, are doing something about it. That's the only thing you can do, and it's the BEST thing you can do. That's great!

Good for you.

6:53 PM, May 23, 2006  
Blogger Lisa said...

It's wonderful that you are recognizing a potential pitfall. And, honestly, we could all tolerate a little change towards more optimism.

Best of luck to you in your endeavor. Parenting is so hard!

8:12 PM, May 23, 2006  
Blogger Tongue in Cheek Antiques said...

The rewards of being a parent is watching how we parent our own souls, how we learn who we are and where we have to go...our children lead us. Love surrounds and heals and creates...thank you for reminding me to be my best self.

3:51 AM, May 24, 2006  

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