They should have been chattering about spelling tests and Hannah Montana songs.
But instead, the two second-graders in my back seat were talking about the shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. They had heard about it at school and were commiserating over the "sad" and "creepy" news as we drove home for a play date.
"You really freaked me out," one of the girls said, admonishing the other for bringing it up. "That makes me think about Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln." … "Guns should be against the law!" Without getting into a big discussion about the Second Amendment, I informed the girls that, unless you are defending yourself, shooting someone is against the law. "But they still did it?" my daughter's friend asked, puzzled.
It was a poignant reminder of the daunting task we face as parents. We teach our children so many, many things: to read and share and tie their shoes, to wear seatbelts and say please and be responsible. But what about the big, important things; the ones that aren't covered in parenting forums and pamphlets from the pediatrician? How do we teach our kids to be cautious but not fearful; tolerant, yet principled; vigilant, yet secure? How can we teach them to be hopeful in a world filled with tragedy and hate?
It is hard enough, sometimes, for us to be optimistic ourselves, in this era of political and religious extremism, when the next unhinged killer could be anywhere and the next tragedy will be relived over and over on the 24-hour news cycle; when friends are out of work and the national debt continues to climb and scientists predict more natural disasters and shortages of food and water.
Yet teaching our kids to be optimistic in the face of all this bad stuff may just be the key to their resilience.
A study published in the February issue of the journal Pediatrics found that optimism protects teenagers against health risks such as emotional problems, substance use and antisocial behavior. The study tracked 5,634 Australian 12- to 14-year-olds for three years and found that the risk of developing depressive symptoms over the next 12 months was nearly half in kids who had a more-optimistic outlook compared to their less-positive peers.
Previous research has examined the link between positive thinking and health, although there is debate about what comes first, the good health or the optimism. In one study, researchers found that people with a tendency to look on the bright side have a lower risk of heart disease and early mortality.
As parents, we want the best for our kids, and that starts with a (relatively) smooth adolescence and health and longevity as adults.
In addition to being healthier, it would stand to reason that optimistic people are also the ones best positioned to solve the world's problems. After all, haven't the most influential leaders, humanitarians, scientists and inventors in history all shared a belief in their power to change the world for the better? Where would we be today if Benjamin Franklin, Louis Pasteur, Florence Nightingale, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Jonas Salk, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Henry Ford, Nelson Mandela and Mother Teresa had been cynics?
I know that my kids may not grow up to broker world peace or cure cancer, but they will be happier and more successful if they believe in their power to make a difference, whether it's through careers, civic service, volunteer work or their daily personal interactions.
The good news is that even those who come from a long line of cynics can learn to see the glass as half-full more often than half-empty. Scientists believe we're all wired with a tendency toward one end of an optimism-pessimism continuum, but we can maneuver that tendency toward the sunnier side by training our brains to perceive things in a positive way.
I can't insulate my kids from scary news and hard realities, but I can try to nurture optimism by example -- not just in times of crisis, but in small day-to-day ways: expressing gratitude, stifling my urge to complain, looking for the best in people, letting someone out in traffic and hoping, out loud, that they'll pay it forward.
And, once in a while, I will try to see the world through the eyes of a second-grader.
Lisa Miller is a freelance writer who lives in Oneonta. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
They should have been chattering about spelling tests and Hannah Montana songs.
- Lisa Miller
A view from above
Fire towers in the Catskill Mountains have always been destination points, built to capture some of the region’s best views. These sentinel stations served an important role for the earliest possible sightings of forest fires in the remote mountain ranges. But the fire towers and those who manned them fulfilled a multitude of other roles as well.
Being a parent is a constant learning process
I am sitting cross-legged on the floor in the dressing room, waiting for Allie's dance number to be called. The cave girl costume has been donned, the jazz shoes double-tied, the hair pulled back, the requisite dab of lipstick applied.
Healthy doesn't have to mean expensive
Half of Americans will be obese by 2030 if current trends continue, according to a report released last week in the British medical journal The Lancet.
A family era ends with close of Potter series
As Harry Potter fans the world over flock to theaters for the final screenings of the final film in the eight-part series, I'm marking the end of an era myself, reading the last pages of the last book to my last child.
Independent stores make up for loss of Borders
For many small communities, the Borders store at the nearest mall was the only place to browse and buy a variety of books, beyond the few titles offered in Walmart bestseller and bargain racks.
- Saturday, July 2, 2011
Untethered from the cable box
I never imagined it would be so easy to be cable-free.
- Saturday, June 11, 2011
On cells, sprouts and sodas
It figures. Six weeks after we dropped our landline, the World Health Organization issued a warning that radiation from cell phones might cause brain cancer. Meanwhile, the ultimate health food, organic bean sprouts, is being blamed for one of the deadliest E. coli outbreaks in recent history.
- Saturday, May 21, 2011
End of the world as we know it? I feel fine
If you're reading this article after 6 p.m. and the ground is not shaking beneath your feet, then Harold Camping was wrong. Again.
- Sunday, May 1, 2011
Song lyrics are an odd measure of attitudes
It was the third rainy weekend in a row, and I was scrolling through comments to a post by MSNBC blogger Melissa Dahl about a new study linking song lyrics to cultural changes.
- Saturday, April 9, 2011
Parenting adventure takes a turn
On Friday, my 13-year-old daughter, Abby, will embark on the biggest adventure of her life.
- Saturday, March 19, 2011
Japan devastation: Powerful reminder of our limitations
The images were surreal. People screaming from higher ground as they watched the relentless wave of brown water sweep up houses and topple power lines. Cars and boats floating like bath toys. Aerial photos of flattened villages, with crumpled roofs jutting out of the debris-laden landscape and orange-suited rescue workers like ants on a mountain of twigs.
- Saturday, February 26, 2011
As food prices rise, sustainability makes more business sense
Frustration with high food prices is among the underlying causes of the unrest in the Middle East and North Africa, and a global food crisis may be brewing.
- Tuesday, February 8, 2011
National agenda needed to advance green technology
In his State of the Union address, President Obama issued a call to action for Americans to "out-innovate" the rest of the world and build on our history of doing "big things." Green technology is the next big thing, and it's our best hope to reinvent ourselves as competitors in the global economy. But we won't get there without a comprehensive national agenda supported by all parties -- political, yes, but also businesses, consumers, educators and students.
- Saturday, January 15, 2011
- Friday, December 3, 2010
Marketing tactics could get kids to eat healthy foods
In a new twist on the "Super Size Me" fast-food diet experiment, the executive director of the Washington State Potato Commission ate nothing but spuds for 60 days.
- Saturday, November 13, 2010
'Oneonta 360' captures essence of our area
The fact that Oneonta's new branding campaign has generated so much controversy shows how passionately people feel about this place. One thing everyone might agree on is that the essence of Oneonta cannot be easily conveyed in a few words or a logo. However, photographer Stephen Joseph makes a fascinating attempt to capture it in his new book, "Oneonta 360." If you haven't seen it yet, stop by Huntington Library, where one two-page spread is on display each day.
- Saturday, October 23, 2010
Stem cell research must move forward
Robert Edwards of Britain received the Nobel Prize in medicine earlier this month for research that led to the birth of the first "test-tube baby" in 1978. Hugely controversial 32 years ago, Edwards' work is now lauded as a medical breakthrough that has brought immeasurable joy to the families of the 4 million babies born through in vitro fertilization.
- Saturday, October 2, 2010
Supersized salmon? No thanks
Davenport Garden Center owner Dennis Valente drizzled maple syrup over sweet potatoes in the cafeteria kitchen while a group of sixth-graders topped pizza crusts with pesto they'd made using basil from their school garden.
- Saturday, September 11, 2010
Chobani yogurt: Nothing but good for the area
I'm in love with Chobani. True to its marketing slogan, this locally made, Greek-style yogurt is, indeed, "nothing but good." First of all, it's delicious: thick, creamy, fruity and sweet (but not too sweet).
- Saturday, August 21, 2010
Summer is a perfect time to unplug
Last month, I wrote about the rewards of disconnecting from information technology during a weeklong family camping trip. Since then, I've picked blueberries, skipped rocks, curled up with my 6-year-old and a pile of books, walked in the woods, and spent a gorgeous day at the lake picnicking with friends and watching the kids swim.
- A view from above