Let’s face it, the world can feel pretty overwhelming these days. From natural disasters impacting people and our planet to deep political divisions to safety concerns, it can be hard to feel optimistic about the world that our children are inheriting. In a time when propagating negative beliefs and language has become commonplace, many of us find ourselves wondering how we can raise children that buck cynicism and develop into compassionate, kind and positive individuals. While we can’t hide our children from the anxieties that life will inevitably present, we can bolster their social and emotional health so that they develop tools to face a tumultuous world with optimism.
Get to Know the People in Your Community
One of the most powerful things for children to understand about the world is that we’re all in this together. We are each a member of our community and we all have the privilege of learning from each others stories. Getting out and exploring your community is an immediate and impactful way to breed positivity about people and planet. Where to start? Go outside, observe and ask questions. Visit a farmer’s market with your little one and learn about where food comes from. When a mechanic comes to your home to fix something that’s broken, watch the work he or she is doing and invite your child to ask questions. If your child is eyeing a construction site (and it’s safe, of course!) pause to watch the action and ask a worker about his or her job. Going out and exploring your neighborhood opens the hearts and minds of children, while helping them to make sense of the larger world and their place in it.
In my view, the best antidote to cynicism and negativity is gratitude. Teaching children manners like saying please and thank you only goes so far, as it tends to be a directive experience. Supporting children into becoming grateful people, however, is an ongoing process. When we help children cultivate an attitude of gratitude, research has shown that happiness, contentment and optimism levels rise. So how is it done?
One of the most important initial steps is to help children understand the emotion of gratitude by labeling it. If someone does something kind for your child and you can tell that they are thankful, label the feeling by saying something like, “That was very kind of him to think of you, it looks like you are feeling really grateful.” When children truly understand what feeling grateful means, it will be easier for them to notice and express when they experience the emotion.
Once children understand what being grateful feels like, it’s time for us, the adults in their lives, to model gratitude in action. Children pick up on our energy, our actions and our habits. If we intentionally model a grateful outlook to our children consistently, it will help them to be more thankful themselves. Next time you’re outside on a beautiful day or are touched by a sweet sentiment your child shares comment on it by saying something like “Wow, I’m really grateful for such a gorgeous day.” or “What you just said means a lot to me, thank you.”
Last, make giving back central to your family ethos. A great tip I learned from our Director of Education, Lauren Vien, is to use the word “enough” when discussing why giving back is essential. She notes, “Chat with your children about how grateful you are that your family has enough. Enough food to keep your belly full. Enough toys to enjoy. Enough books to read before bedtime. Enough clothes to keep your body warm on chilly days.” From there help your child to understand that some children and some families do not have enough of what they need. “Together, brainstorm ways that your family can share with others. Be sure to involve your child in every step of the process: choosing toys or books to share (in great condition), sorting through clothes that no longer fit, packing items in boxes or bags and accompanying you to donation centers.”
We live in an over-stimulated, “what’s next” world. What’s for dinner? When is the dance recital? Where is our next vacation going to be? Anticipating the future instead of living in the present can cause children to experience feelings of disconnection, worry and stress. To combat this experience, it’s essential that we teach our children the skill of being present...but how?
One of the most effective ways to help children practice presence is to utilize mindfulness techniques like visualization, deep breathing and intentional noticing (yes, that’s a thing!). Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to what is going on inside and outside of the body right now. It is simply being aware of where you are and how you are feeling, NOW. With as little as ten minutes of mindful practice a day, children have been found to experience increased happiness, reduced stress and a greater ability to control their emotions and behavior. One of my favorite, simple mindfulness exercises is to ask children to notice five things that they can hear right now. By simply tuning into their senses, they begin to relax their central nervous systems. Some of my other favorite mindfulness exercises can be found in our Calm Mind Kit, which introduces mindfulness to children in a playful way through activities like “the noodle,” which teaches progressive muscle relaxation and “wave breathing,” which encourages deep belly breathing.
Develop New Perspectives through Dramatic Play
We’re play people over here so it’s no surprise that I firmly believe that imaginative play is one of the most powerful ways to help children process their feelings about the world. Each and every day, encourage your children to have uninterrupted play time with quality materials like stuffed animals or wooden blocks. When children engage in dramatic play they are acting out things that are happening in their own lives, exploring emotions, and experimenting with new ideas.
When children try on a role, such as mom, baby or police man, they must take on the perspective of who they are pretending to be, which helps to shift the way they perceive the world and their relationships. Play also offers children the time to wrestle with concepts and feelings that they may not fully understand, like welcoming a new sibling or authority. Through this playful exploration, children develop empathy, which is the ability to connect to the emotional experience of another person.