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.