This week, Passover starts, Christians are looking forward to Easter, and the weather in most places is turning towards spring. It’s a time of hope and looking forward to new beginnings. Hope is essential for people parenting other people’s children. This week I want to think about how to understand and find hope in difficult parenting situations. Our first step is to resist myths about hope that can sidetrack us.
Hope is Not Passive
It’s very easy to think of hope as something that just happens to us. According to this myth, hope comes after we wait long enough for something good to happen to us. In reality, hope is an active emotion that we can cultivate. Jonas Salk said of hope that it “lies in dreams, in imagination, and in the courage of those who dare to make dreams into reality.” That reality is the core of hope. It doesn’t wait for good things to happen; it actively works to make real those things that we hope for.
Hope is Not Unrealistic Optimism
Another myth is that hoping for something is simply choosing to be optimistic, even unrealistically optimistic. The most powerful forms of hope, however, have a realistic view of circumstances. We don’t ignore the challenges where find ourselves. We know, often better than anyone else, the difficulties that our children are going through and what they will face in the future. Yet, we also know that our kids have untapped resources and skills that can help them succeed beyond their wildest dreams. Our hope for them is based not on unrealistic dreams, but our knowledge of their strength and abilities. They may not know yet what they are capable of accomplishing, but we do. Hope helps us keep holding onto that knowledge in spite of temporary setbacks.
Hope is Not Wishful Thinking
A final myth is related to the others in that it assumes that hope simply wishes that good things would happen. Wishing may not be completely passive, but it is a bit half-hearted and mostly unrealistic. Playing the lottery is entertaining, but it’s a bad strategy for getting out of debt. Throwing a coin into a fountain is fun, but we don’t plan our lives around those wishes. Hope is a much more powerful engine that actually finds ways to make wishes come true.
Researchers at Arizona State University recently looked at research studies on the psychology of hope, and concluded that hopeful students do better in school, have higher psychosocial skills and forge stronger relationships. They also found that, in the words of one professor, “Hopeful people cannot just wish things into existence. Hope requires a person to take responsibility for their wants and desires and take action in working towards them.”
That sense of responsibility and action is a key dividing line between hope and despair. We don’t deny the trauma that our kids have suffered, or the emotional problems that the trauma has left them with. But we don’t stop with recognizing reality. Instead, hope means that we help our kids understand the difference between where they are and where they could be and help them find ways to get to where they want to be.
A recent mental health article looks at adverse childhood experiences, and argues that the “construct of hope” offers the best way for children to overcome those experiences. The authors noted the high correlation between strong hopefulness and “various indicators of life satisfaction, affect regulation, meaning in life, and decreased depression and suicidal ideation.” They also pointed to one study where “hope has demonstrated stronger predictive power for psychological flourishing among ACEs survivors than resilience.”
I don’t have the science background to evaluate the studies that this article cites. But it does ring true to me that recognizing our children’s trauma is not sufficient. We have to find ways to help them move beyond where they are, and hope is a powerful tool for finding ways to move forward.
In sum, hope is more than passive wishing and waiting. It is a powerful emotion that can motivate our children to overcome the trauma that they face. The best way we can help our kids find hope is to recognize the myths of hope and understand the true power of hope in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.