You want to protect your children from physical harm and bad influences. At the same time, you don’t want them to grow up physically safe but emotionally fearful, cynical, despairing—and perhaps seeking toxic escapes from a “hard reality” that isn’t really as hard as the pessimists would have us believe.
The first rule of preventing such attitudes from taking root is: don’t model them yourself! If you constantly moan about what the world is coming to; if you fail to pursue your dreams because “it’s just not practical”; if you “zone out” in the evenings or “need a drink” to relax—odds are your kids will do the same. If you don’t like such behavior in yourself, change it for your children’s sake if not your own.
Granted, it’s not easy to replace pessimistic habits with optimistic ones. But it is possible: believe that as your first step toward optimism.
I personally believe that a strong religious and/or spiritual worldview is essential to optimism: a sense of ultimate meaning and eternal value does wonders for anyone’s positive outlook. But even spiritually skeptical people (and religious ones who want to go beyond “pie in the sky by and by” thinking) can find meaning in life by seeing themselves as part of a larger community and world. Thinking in terms of “What’s in it for me?” or “What’s expedient/instantly gratifying?” is daring the rest of the world to prove you are not the center of the universe—and after they’ve been proving it for a few weeks or years, you’ll turn into a surly “nothing ever goes right” grouch. Practice making decisions on the basis of better questions: “What will be the best investment in my long-term goals, a better world, the next generation?”
Even if you get only to the halfway mark on big goals, it’ll be further than you’d get by “playing it safe.” Sure, you don’t want to risk devastating physical or financial consequences, but if the worst that could happen is embarrassment or “wasted time” (which you’d probably have spent Internet surfing anyway), you’ve got nothing significant to lose, and everything to gain, by pursuing big dreams.
Many parents actively squelch their own big dreams and their children’s, which perpetuates a generation-to-generation epidemic of people playing it “safe” and influencing the larger world to go nowhere. Even worse is the habit of catastrophizing: the preschooler climbing above her own head is not simply risking a bruised ankle but inviting a broken neck; the eighteen-year-old who wants to try professional art has already condemned himself to fifty years of poverty and drug addiction. Don’t rush in to “protect” your children unless they’re in real danger: allow them their right to learn things the hard way, and encourage them to take that learning and press on forward. Great success after persevering through a series of setbacks grows optimism better than a lifetime of safe, easy “successes.”
At any age.