Last weekend I had the distinct privilege of touring my wife’s childhood home with her mother and siblings. We learned upon arrival that the current owner is a former student of mine from my days as a school principal in suburban Fort Wayne. This happy discovery sweetened the pot of reminiscing during the 40 minute tour.
And the memories, laughter, and occasional tears did flow for my wife, Mary, and her sister. They and their brother explored attic nooks and basement crannies. They lamented that the childhood secret path behind the garage was overgrown and no longer navigable. Mary says there were 106 school-age children living in that Southwood Park section of Fort Wayne as she grew up there. Visiting her childhood home had thrown open a treasure chest of memories and emotion.
My ‘best of tour’ experience was my wife’s explanation to our son about how she and her sister configured their tiny bedroom such that a strategically placed list, created by Mary each night at bedtime, would be the first thing she saw in the morning. The list contained Mary’s “looking forward to” items for the day ahead. I easily pictured the little girl and adolescent Mary there smiling as she awoke to reminders from her pre-bedtime self about fun, friends, and favorite things worth anticipating in the day just dawned.
What dawned on me in that moment was how Mary’s amazingly positive explanatory style—the way she explains the events of living—got its start in that tidy little house in that quintessentially American neighborhood. According to psychologist Dr. Martin Seligman’s research, the way we view the world and explain to ourselves the things that happen as we live constitute our explanatory styles. This dynamic has great power in raising up resilient youth.
My Mary’s positive, proactive personality is surely part nature and part nurture. Dr. Seligman asserts that this style of explanations to self about the world is established by our primary caregiver(s) by about age eight. On a spectrum from hopelessness to optimistic, we see our caregivers model this style, and then we practice it over and over until it becomes the very nature of us.
Dr. Seligman called it “learned optimism” in his landmark book of the same name. Every parent of young children should know about this book and the lifelong power of instilling positive and realistic styles of explaining the stuff that happens in living—and doing so with parenting intent especially during their children’s formative years.
Mary’s mom and dad raised up strong, funny, happy, resourceful, and kind people. Such great assets to this world, all of them!
And all of it from one little house on Drury Lane.
Scott Robison, Superintendent
Zionsville Community Schools