No one at my brother’s house understands the concept of sleeping in. It is just not done. I have come to understand this fact and adjust my bedtime accordingly, knowing that at the crack of dawn, three children will be fighting over a spot next to me in bed and a turn with the games on my iPad. If I am lucky they let me keep my pillow and I never complain about the early morning intrusions. One day, however, they were a little more feisty than usual. They turned on the light, snapped off my sleeping mask, jumped on the bed, pulled off the covers and dragged me to the floor by my feet. Once suitably restrained on the floor, they demanded piggy-back rides, which happens so frequently they have shortened “Please Aunty Jo, may I have a piggy-back ride” to “Pretzel!” I’m not entirely certain but I think it might be my horse name. This did not produce the desired activity so my eight-year-old nephew, Rider, sat on me and said, “I’m sensing some negativity.”
I think of myself as a fairly positive person. Maybe not when being physically abused at 6 a.m., but, you know, generally speaking. My nephew’s early-onset sarcasm always makes me laugh but this time it got me thinking about whether he really does notice when I am negative. Growing up, I had a friend whose father was kind of a negative person. When she asked him for permission to do anything, his first reaction was almost always “no.” She knew that if she kept talking and explaining the situation, he would have time to think about it and come around. She had learned that his first reaction was going to be negative and that it was not always the final word on the subject. She had to give him time to work his mind around to something more positive. It was fascinating to watch and had a big impact on me.
I have noticed that some people are inherently positive and always see a challenge as something that can be overcome. We all know people who smile all the time and exude happiness. When my husband was dealing with a setback in his cancer treatment, his doctor suggested a “laugh clinic” that was being held in the hospital. A woman in a clown nose had patients in a circle and was teaching them how to fake a hearty laugh. She claimed that if you pretend you are happy, eventually you will be. She proved this theory by explaining that when she was standing in the street in her pajamas watching her house burn down, she made herself laugh for 20 minutes and felt much better. She was clearly insane and I kept wondering when the psych ward was going to notice she was missing.
While there is apparently such a thing as being ridiculously positive, others have to work on how they react to difficulty and need constant encouragement. Many of my friends who are parents have one child who sees the good in everything and one who has to be convinced that the world isn’t going to end when things don’t go as planned. Why do some kids chug up the hill chanting, “I think I can. I think I can” while their sibling is thinking, “I cannot pull even so little a train over the mountain. I cannot, I cannot”? They have the same parents, so clearly nature has a hand in deciding this personality trait. But what do parents do to nurture the right attitude that an enthusiastic aunt can take to heart?
I turned to a friend who has twins. One is like her, a happy, positive person. The other she describes as a born pessimist. When anything goes wrong he is automatically having “the worst day ever!” She has started a routine to help him train his brain to focus on the positive first. When he gets in the car after school, he has to tell her one good thing that happened that day before he is allowed to go through his laundry list of all the wrongs he has suffered. He is still allowed to tell her about his problems, but first he has to focus on something positive. Then she helps him find something that he can learn from the things that were bad. Even when venting about the negative, he has to find something that he can take away and use next time he finds himself in that situation. She is using this repetition in hopes that he will learn to find the positive first on his own.
If you do a search for self-help material on how to have a positive attitude, like me you will be bombarded with people who can tell you how it is done. Just put your mind to it! If you change your thoughts, you can control what happens in your life! Create your life from within. If you want love, focus on all the people you love. If you want success, focus your mind on the areas where you are already successful. There are books and books of catch phrases that are hard to argue with, but training your mind to automatically go to a happy place is easier said than done.
I decided to start small. I get that a positive attitude is part of the personality you are born with, but attitudes and thinking can be changed. Ask any psychologist. Like almost everything in our ever changing lives, the knowledge of how to be positive can be learned and the skill developed. If I am going to help my nieces and nephews cultivate a positive attitude, I first need to lead by example. I made a conscious effort to change “you have to” to “you get to.” “Hey everybody! We get to put on our pajamas and brush our teeth!” OK, so maybe that wasn’t the best moment to launch the plan. Three-year-old Stanley’s bottom lip starts quivering at the mere mention of an N-A-P so it was a tough sell. But I like the theory. The kids can only benefit from my efforts to positive. Don’t get me wrong, I marched their behinds to bed because doing what Aunty Jo says is not optional, but I did it with a smile.
The amount of time that I get to spend with each of my many nieces and nephews is not going to change their personalities. That’s not my job. But I can avoid showing them how negative is done. To be clear, anyone sitting on my head at 6 in the morning is going to continue to sense some serious negativity. But I am determined that one day, my attackers will look back at my influence on their lives as a positive one.