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The Informed Parent

Choose Your Attitude

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Nov. 06, 2006

Have you ever been to a parent conference where the teacher told you that your son could be a fine student if he would just change his attitude? If so, you may not have been surprised. Often children with poor attitudes exhibit a similar demeanor in all settings.

When parents or teachers ask children to change their attitudes, they assume their request is understood. It may not be. Attitude is a somewhat nebulous word. Nonetheless, the children agree that, of course, they will change. Rarely does that happen. If someone suggests that an attitude is chosen, they may receive a blank look from both children and adults.

Many adults believe that attitude is not within their choice. They think their feelings are controlled by life circumstances. Their contentment or misery is based on what is happening at the moment. A positive job change results in joy while a snub by a coworker turns a pleasant day upside down. These adults ride a roller coaster of feelings and assume that they have no control. If this is what they believe, it is virtually impossible for them to help their children learn how to shift an attitude.

A wise person once said, "Pain is a given. Suffering is optional." She went on to explain that we cannot avoid unpleasantness in our lives, but we can choose what to do with it. All of us know of people who have lived with physical and emotional pain and maintained a positive attitude. Children learn the stories of Helen Keller and others who rose above their disabilities to become heroic figures. Few families escape some form of pain among family members and friends. Some sink under the pressures and others rise above the adversity to not only survive but thrive.

There is some evidence that people are either born with the ability to see the cup as half full or half empty. Those who naturally tend to see the world as fraught with adversity must learn the skills of choosing and changing their attitude. Those born with a more positive outlook can expand and refine their skills. Wise parents use life's challenges to both model and teach their children positive ways of handling them.

Helping children better understand themselves and where they have control takes time. It takes a desire to set aside moments to talk about feelings. It requires a willingness to discuss whether a situation can be changed or whether the changes need to come from within. In his book Goals! How to Get Everything You Want--Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible, Brian Tracy talks about the 80 - 20 rule. He believes we have control over 80 percent of what happens to us. The other 20 percent we cannot do anything about. What we have is 100 percent control over how we respond to what happens to us.

Tools for Changing Attitude

  1. Let's talk about attitude. Before we can change something, we have to know what we're talking about. Brainstorm with children about what attitude is. Some of the words you will come up with are: feelings, thoughts, a way of thinking, a mind set, a point of view, an opinion, a way of behaving.
  2. Let's talk bout feelings. There's no getting around it. We have feelings about the situations that arise in life. It's important to acknowledge those feelings. It is just as important to move through them and use them for growth. If your child comes home from school and tells you that he hates his teacher because she put his name on the board, the first step is to reflect the feeling back to him. You might say, "It sounds like you are feeling angry and maybe even a little embarrassed that you got your name on the board." This kind of nonjudgmental reflection usually deflates some of the intense feeling and opens the door for talking about what may have led to his punishment. From there you can move toward discussing what could be done in the future to avoid the situation and whether or not he really wants to stay angry. If he says that he does, respond by saying, "Then it is your choice to stay angry."
  3. Let's role play. Children learn strategies for handling situations by role playing them before they arise. If your child tends to have a negative attitude toward a particular activity, role play with him long before it begins. Let's say he does not like to go on field trips at school. When you know a trip is coming, talk about what he can expect. Next pretend to be the teacher or bus driver and have the child practice how he will act during the trip. Then reverse roles. You can be a child with a negative attitude; then role play a positive demeanor. Practicing for an event in a non-threatening environment provides the opportunity for success during the actual experience.
  4. Let's do research. Going to the library or on-line to learn about people who have triumphed over adversity can provide positive parent/child time. It can also provide an opportunity to discuss the person's attitude toward his situation. Discuss the traits the person had that impacted his or her life in a positive way. Talk about how choosing a different attitude might have changed the outcome.
  5. Let's read. Talk to the children's librarian or the manager of the children's department at the local bookstore. Ask for stories about attitude. Many children's stories, either with animals or children as the main characters, are about what is necessary for getting along in life. Often the climax of the story is when the main character chooses a different attitude. Talk about the story asking your child to share his ideas.

Learning to choose a positive attitude is not easy. All of us occasionally catch ourselves in a bad attitude trap. It is a lifelong task to be aware of our feelings, to express them appropriately, and to use them constructively. Guiding children in learning these skills assists them in both their social and academic life.

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