Imagine your life five years from now. You’re older. Your children have started school, or graduated from school, or launched careers. Maybe you’ve moved. Maybe you’ve published your book. Much has changed – some things for the better and some for the worse – but you’re alive, right? And your kids are alive, and, for the most part, things are fine. Of course, there is no guarantee that five years from now, you won’t be staggering down a street lined with bombed-out buildings or divining for water that isn’t contaminated with radioactive waste – they’re just not your first thoughts when you imagine the future. A World War III scenario (or one less dramatic but equally devastating, like the death of a child or spouse) may have crossed your mind in the guise of “What’s the worst that could happen?” But it isn’t a parent’s go-to vignette.
Becoming a parent makes you many things. It makes you responsible for the health and well-being of another person, it makes you part of the older generation, it makes you act like a prude, it makes you spend money on stuff you used to scoff at, and it makes you tired. It also, by necessity, makes you an optimist.
Human beings come equipped with a baseline inclination toward optimism. I mean, think about it, we are the only sentient creatures who, from a very early age, are aware of our own impending death. To be able to carry on with life in any meaningful way – to make plans and goals and to not go hide in a closet – requires optimism. For parents, adding the weight of knowing your kid will also someday die demands it.
Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist known for discovering the neural underpinnings of human optimism, considers it an evolutionary benefit to propagation. “Hope isn’t rational, so why are we wired for it?” she asks in her book “The Optimism Bias,” which explores how optimism shapes our existence. The answer in its simplest form is that it keeps us moving forward.
Moving forward is intrinsic to parenting. From the moment they’re a separate entity from us, our biological objective is to move our children forward. Move them through the birth canal, along the growth chart, and toward the next milestone. Move them to feed themselves and speak their own thoughts. We fulfill our commitment to nature by moving our children toward independence, and to ensure their arrival, nature gives us the ultimate tool: optimism.
In parenting, optimism is a more fundamental quality than just looking on the bright side or hoping for the best. It’s the ability to imagine a plethora of outcomes, both good and bad, to any given situation without being paralyzed by the what-ifs. It’s the capacity to foster a sense of well-being in your children, even when you don’t have much of one to draw upon. It’s assessing and taking risks and allowing your children to do the same. And mostly, it’s suspending the sober understanding that one hundred years from now, none of this will matter because we’ll all be dead. Not an easy feat.
Like other human qualities, disposition exists on a continuum, with optimism and pessimism at opposite ends and pragmatism in the center. Some people are naturally more optimistic than others, but what does that translate into when they become parents? Do they raise kids who are devoid of fear and insecurity? Are they more confident? Are they happier? The short answer is no. Tali Sharot would argue that parents who have an overly positive sense of the future create the rose-colored-glasses effect, where parents are so sure of their kid’s perfect future they skip obvious precautions about health and safety. Their willingness to ignore imminent consequences leads to not necessarily catastrophic ends but unfortunate ones, like debt and failed relationships.
On the other end of the spectrum, where optimism is sparse, parents can be overprotective, controlling, and neurotic. They instill wariness in their children – about other people and the world they live in. They keep their expectations low in aims of mitigating disappointment, and they seek confirmation by focusing on life’s failures. It’s like they lack faith in the universe.
Fortunately, we have a hard-wired magnetism pulling us to live in the sweet spot of optimism, and this bond becomes stronger when we become parents. It is there, in an imagined bubble of invulnerability, that we thrive with our kids, until one day, they break out, moving forward to find their own way.