OPTIMISM It's a powerful way of dealing with life, but we often fail to pass it to children

October 16, 1990|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Evening Sun Staff

A MOTHER and daughter are driving along. The young girl suddenly asks:

"Mom, where are all the jerks today?"

"Oh," says the slightly surprised mother. "They're only on the road when your father drives."

Alan McGinnis tells this story, laughs and then, like the preacher he used to be, points out the lesson therein: "If you expect the world to be peopled with idiots and jerks, they start popping up."

McGinnis, a Presbyterian pastor turned therapist and author, uses this story to explain optimism, his current message and the subject of his book, "The Power of Optimism."

And although McGinnis spends 150 pages describing optimism and its 12 characteristics and giving examples of optimists, he is reluctant to define the quality. The best he can do is by way of comparison:

"Pessimists are overwhelmed by their problems. Optimists are challenged by them. They think of themselves as problem-solvers, as trouble-shooters," he says.

Optimism, to McGinnis, has much to do with outlook and attitude. It is both born and bred in a person, he says in the book.

Instilling optimism in children is far from a science, McGinnis said during a recent stop in Baltimore to promote his book. "So much of what we impart to our kids has to do with stream of consciousness. Unknowingly, we convey a view of the future of the universe" and often it is negative, he adds.

Like the little girl's view of other drivers when she rides with her father.

Even though many of today's parents are careful to "stroke" their children frequently to build self-esteem and security, they may not be fostering the same kind of positive spirit about other people and places. There isn't enough "good data about the world" being passed on to youngsters, McGinnis contends. "The interesting things for conversation are . . . what's wrong in the world."

This is not to say that children should be encouraged to emulate Pollyanna. McGinnis makes a strong distinction between his "tough-minded optimists" and those who see no evil -- anywhere. Rose-colored glasses do not fit into his picture of an optimist.

And parents have a tough job preparing their children for the dangers of today's world without unduly frightening them, says McGinnis, a father, stepfather and grandfather.

"If you get obsessed with danger and get your kids obsessed, you don't do them any favors." McGinnis says he tends to "trust people until they prove untrustworthy," but he isn't convinced this is a sound philosophy for youngsters. "I don't know where the balance is."

He says teaching by example may be best. If, for instance, a parent and child are walking down the street and someone is acting suspiciously behind them, it may be a good opportunity to stop and say, "Here's an example of when to stop and let this person pass you.

"You can impart ways to survive on the street in urban areas," he says.

"One of the surest ways to help a kid become a tough-minded optimist is to let him have a lot of small successes," says McGinnis, implying that this may take some parental intervention -- and again that crucial balance.

"You don't want to be so protective" that a child never fails, but a parent can often help a child make choices that are likely to lead to success.

Looking back, McGinnis says he wishes he had intervened more in his children's lives. For instance, when his son ran for a student government office in high school, McGinnis did not get involved. His son lost the election. "I could have helped him," McGinnis says now, years later.

McGinnis, a family therapist and director of a counseling center in Glendale, Calif., is not naturally optimistic. In fact, he has been nTC given to bouts of depression throughout his life, he says. He is, however, married "to a consummate optimist."

"She's such a cheerful, upbeat person," says McGinnis, describing how his wife often begins the day by folding her hands around a coffee mug, breathing deeply and exclaiming how much she loves the aroma of her first cup of coffee.

"I don't know where she got that."

The 12 characteristics of an optimist

HERE ARE Alan McGinnis' "12 characteristics of tough-minded optimists:"

Optimists:

* Are seldom surprised by trouble.

* Look for partial solutions.

* Believe they have control over their future.

* Allow for regular renewal.

* Interrupt their negative trains of thought.

* Heighten their powers of appreciation.

* Use their imaginations to rehearse success.

* Are cheerful even when they can't be happy.

* Think they have an almost unlimited capacity for stretching.

* Build lots of love into their lives.

* Like to swap good news.

* Accept what cannot be changed.

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