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'90s FAMILY : Shiny, Happy People : Accentuating the Positives Can Give Your Children an Optimistic Approach to Life --No Easy Task in This Cynical Age

November 22, 1995|VALERIE J. NELSON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

History sneaks into the Odhner house at offbeat moments. One child does a bang-up job cleaning his room. Another makes a terrific dinner salad. Their mother pauses to capture the moment.

"Just taking a picture of it says that it mattered to me," says Lori Odhner, 38, of La Crescenta. She mounts the photograph in a book that the family--Lori and her husband, John, and their six children ages 1 to 14--can flip through to relive everyday triumphs.

Accentuating the little positives is one of the concrete steps a parent can take to try to raise a child to be an optimist--no small task in a cynical and crime-plagued world. Whether a child lives on the edge or only comes across violence on the television news, experts say certain straightforward techniques can help children feel in control and positive about their world.

The experts advise parents and caregivers to model good behavior, work on the child's self-esteem, give children the skills to deal with their worries and let them know that they are there to listen to their fears. In other words, practice good parenting.

"To give children an optimistic attitude and world view, children need to know they are loved and appreciated," says Chrystal Evans, a clinical psychologist who works with children in Los Angeles. "Children are just dying for attention. They want to know that what they've done is a good job. That gives them a sense of hope that what they are doing is OK, and tomorrow will be as well."

Children who can solve problems have a sense of control over their world that results in self-esteem and optimism, Evans says. If a child complains that another child won't play with him at recess, don't dismiss it as behavior that's typical of the playground. "Parents should explain why some kids sometimes don't play with others at recess. Show him ways to deal with this situation," such as suggesting ways to start up friendships, she says.

Don't forget to revisit triumphs. Once the playground friendships are resolved, a child can learn to put a positive spin on any situation by seeing that things can be made better, Evans adds.

Marilyn Neville of Woodland Hills raised her children to be optimists--all eight of them. Now ranging in age from 23 to 35, they are all achievers who got the feeling they could succeed from their family and their faith. Like many, she links growing up to be happy and hopeful with having high self-esteem.

"When you feel you can do anything, you get an optimistic outlook on life. We all must learn to ride a bike or swim. We end up doing it because we have that confidence," she says.

Yet Neville, who teaches at St. Joseph the Worker in Canoga Park, sees a change in her students from when she began teaching kindergarten 17 years ago. "It's much harder now for kids. There's so much negativity in the world. They are much more frightened. I see their fears."

And she sees how much harder it is for parents to pass on a sense that everything is going to be all right.

Paper plates, a staple of childhood crafts, take on heavenly significance in her kindergarten class. The children make them into guardian angels and talk about having a figure that will be there to help protect them.

"It gives children a measure of confidence. We give them something positive to hang on to. They love it. It gives them a feeling of peace," Neville says.

Evans agrees that "having faith in a higher power--however you define your higher power--helps take some of the responsibility off your shoulders and allows you to accept things for what they are."

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For many children, thinking positively about the future can be more elusive. Dolores Evans, Chrystal's mother, has taught for 25 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Many of those years have been spent in South Los Angeles, where she says she came to make a difference at the request of Martin Luther King Jr., a family friend.

She says her daughter is cheerful and successful because she had support at home. Her parents told her she could do anything, then helped her acquire the tools to get there. "Children don't just grow and learn to talk. Nor do they just grow up bigger and bigger and learn values. They are modeled in the home. In our home, we had certain rules, values," Dolores Evans says.

"Children everywhere need to feel that there is something better out there. What kind of optimism do they have when they see all around that there are no jobs, that despair is everywhere?" she asks. "If children don't have self-esteem, they are children at risk."

Her school and others work on self-esteem by staging ethnic programs and festivals and bringing in successful role models for the students to meet.

In the Irvine Unified School District, children are taught to manage their own life changes through two programs written by Christine Honeyman, a counselor with the district and a marriage and family therapist. They learn how to cope with change, are taught assertion skills and how to manage criticism.

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