Give Your Child the Gift of Realistic Optimism

parents and children

In a partnership between a writer living in Europe and a Danish psychotherapist, Danish Way of Parenting gives us some insight into the way Danes have maintained their status as the happiest people in the world and how their parenting perpetuates this lifestyle.

cheat sheet for book

The Danish Rules of Parenting

Alexander and Sandahl list six characteristics common to Danish parents that seem to help children develop confidence and the ability to move through the world easily and with joy. These are:

  • Play
  • Authenticity
  • Reframing
  • Empathy
  • No Ultimatums
  • Togetherness and Hygge

As Americans, I think a lot of us have realized that our children need more free play time, but aren’t quit sure how to make it happen. Balancing the need to achieve, the necessity of keeping up with an over-achieving school system and providing for free play time creates a loop that is hard to escape for most parents, me included. I want my children to excel and to keep up, but I also want them to have time to nurture the relationships between siblings and with parents as well as have time to explore independently.

And obviously a sense of authenticity and togetherness is essential in making a child feel comfortable and confident. But what is reframing and how will it help us become better parents?


Reframing for Realistic Optimism

Just as a frame changes the way a portrait looks, the frame of reference we use to view the world changes our outlook on life and interactions. Seeing the positive in a situation, while not ignoring the negative, seems to be a skill the Danes have mastered. We know that everything is not roses and we don’t have to ignore the less than ideal facets of our lives. But if we can put more emphasis on the positive, it will reframe everything else.

This type of reframing helps support an outlook characterized as realistic optimism. It doesn’t ignore the negative. Instead it is a conscious choice to focus on the positive instead. Being able to see the bright side is a defining characteristic of resilient children and eventually, adults.

realistic optimism is seeing the positive

Reframing in Language

So how do we use this skill with our children? The first step is to notice when we are using limiting language. How often do we say things like I hate cooking dinner. Or I’m terrible at balancing my home and work life. Or even #momfail.

This pigeonholes us in a negative loop. Reframing is simply turning some of those negative thoughts into something more positive. And not just I’m so thankful I have food to feed my family *insert eye roll here*. It’s focusing on the skills we do have and the positive things about ourselves. By bringing attention to our strengths, we encourage ourselves and others to step out and try again and make more progress.

So maybe, I have a few recipes I really enjoy making so I should put them on the menu more often. 

Or I’m really proud of myself for not working this past Sunday and just playing with the kids. It was hard to focus, but now that I know I can, I will more often. 

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Reframing our Self-Talk

After reading this, I realize I am guilty of using this kind of language way more often than I should. I’m sarcastic and self-deprecating. It’s not at all unusual for me to talk about my failures and the real possibility of my children requiring therapy one day to make up for my missteps. Maybe I do it a little too much. I rarely reframe those mistakes as opportunities to learn and do better.

I say it as a joke, but I get caught in the loop of focusing on my failures. I can easily sink to feeling like I’ve screwed up everything in my life and have no idea how to fix it. Maybe I have to start all over. How do I fix the things from when I was 10. Why did I say those stupid things? Why did I do that or treat a person that way or treat myself that way?

It’s a dangerous slippery slope from forgetting to thaw the meat to being a complete failure since the time I started to talk (Enneagram four problems). I need to start with my self-talk so I can teach my kids the gift of realistic optimism instead of fear and dread.

Realistic Optimism for Kids

Taking this same attitude with our children can help them become capable adults. I absolutely do not want to minimize their experiences. They many be small but they feel big feelings. Dismissing those feelings will not help them develop strong lasting bonds.

Instead, I want to change the frame they use. Instead of insisting that a classmate doesn’t like them, maybe we could give them the benefit of the doubt and believe they were having a hard day.

When they come across homework that is difficult, it’s helpful to think I can find a way to do this that works for me instead of I’m terrible at math. I want my children to believe they have a choice in their lives and they can work harder, learn new concepts, get along with a diverse group of people and be responsible for themselves.

Avoiding labels

One idea that Alexander and Sandahl focuses on in this chapter was that parents tend to label their children without giving it much though. It’s easy to find consistent ways to describe our children to other people. While some kids have official diagnoses like ADHD, almost all others have some kind of label, whether it is about their size, ability or behavior.

We hate thinking we do this, but it’s true. And the more our children hear those labels, the more they start to believe them.

I’ve said multiple times recently that my tween is unmotivated. Typical behavior for the age, yes. But incredibly frustrating all the same. But now, is he unmotivated because that is the behavior I expect from him?

And my eight year old has always been my loving disaster. He’s one of the most thoughtful caring people you will ever meet, but he’s a hot mess. He’s messy and disorganized. He’s uncoordinated and is constantly spilling and breaking. Is it now ingrained in his mind that this describes him? Does he believe this will define him for the rest of his life and he is unable to make a different choice?

I don’t know, but I hate to think it’s true.

Realistic Optimism in Every Day Life

This is what I took away from this book. I want to give my children the gift of realistic optimism and I will need to be more cognizant of my behavior in order to do it.

How can you nurture this in your children? Can you analyze your parenting and see where you need to reframe the conversation?

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Comments 5

  1. I love the Danish rules of parenting, and how they talk about ‘realistic’ optimism! It seems like so many kids struggle with anxiety and depression — this is a very necessary converstion.

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