I’m not exactly an advocate of what people call “positive thinking” philosophies. I think they mostly encourage people to adopt wishful or imaginary thinking that prevents them from dealing practically with the very real problems of their lives.
I am, however, as I’ve written about before, an advocate of approaching the world with “confident thinking”, which comes from believing in the abilities that we know ourselves to have and from realizing that it’s okay to fail. But this is harder to instil in kids than it might sound. It’s hard enough to understand the importance of learning from failure when we have the benefit of a lifetime’s experience. It’s vastly harder for kids to look at the possibility of failure when they haven’t yet learned to fail. Things that we as adults know aren’t the end of the world, can feel very much like the end of the world to a child.
They feel the pressure of those situations. The fear to fail, to disappoint their parents or their teachers or their coaches. They fear that they won’t be good enough, that their friends will laugh at them, and this fear can prevent them from succeeding even when they’re otherwise capable of it.
Let me give you an example.
When my middle kid plays basketball on the playground, just goofing around with his buddies, he’s confident and assertive in his play. He drives the ball against anyone, pulls up to shoot whenever he feels like it, and even feels able to make fancy dribbles or passes.
When he plays for his rep team, however, he can sometimes be paralyzed by the situation. He gets intimidated by the other team, and he worries about whether he’s playing the way the coaches want, and he stresses about what the audience is thinking about him. All of which means that he ends up second guessing himself. He starts playing tentatively. He hesitates on clear drives, turns down open shots, and gets trapped into turnovers.
The thing is, all it takes is a couple of good plays at the beginning of the game, and all that seems to go away. When he finds some initial success, it’s as if he’s able to put all of his fear of failure aside and play like he does on the playground. When he’s not worried about succeeding, ironically, is when he’s best able to succeed.
His coaches and I have been working on this with him. We’re not telling him just to think positively and believe that he’ll magically find the skills he needs to play basketball. We’re helping him understand that he already has all the tools he needs to be successful. He shows those skills regularly. He just has to have confidence in those abilities.
The difference is this – positive thinking tells us that just believing in something will make it true, whereas confident thinking tells us to believe in the truth that our experience has already shown us, in our hard work and practise. Just thinking positively won’t make my kid into a good basketball player, but thinking confidently will allow him to be the good basketball player that he already has the skills to be.
Which means that our job as parents isn’t to tell kids just to believe in their dreams. Our job is to help them have confidence in their skill and abilities, in their hard work and practise, and in our support for them regardless of the outcome.