How Do Kids Learn Hope?

Only hope can keep me together, sang the Police, as we drove along one afternoon. We were coming back from ski lessons, trying to warm our frozen toes in the blasts from the car’s heater.

“Only Hulk can keep us together?” my son asked from the backseat. That kid is all about superheroes.

“No, baby,” I answered. “He’s singing about hope. He said ‘only hope.’”

“I think he said Hulk.”

My husband chimed in. “He definitely said hope, R. ‘Only hope can keep me together.’”

Unable to persuade the two of us that the Police were indeed singing about the Incredible Hulk, R turned to look out the window. He was disappointed, I think, not to find superheroes on the radio after all.

While I quietly rejoiced that my children were listening to music I thought was good (they’d been asking for Auto-Tuned pop music far too much for my taste), I simultaneously realized how old I sounded thinking that.

“What did he mean by ‘only hope can keep me together?’” R continued the conversation. He, like me, hadn’t stopped thinking about the song. I found it interesting that in that whole song—in all the music on the radio that afternoon—he asked about that phrase.

“Hope is when people believe good things are going to happen,” I explained. “And, he’s saying that hope keeps us happy and looking forward.”

His eyes narrowed, still thinking. By now, “Message in a Bottle” had ended, and the backseat became quiet. Ski lessons had been tiring, and, soon, the eyes that belonged to that questioning little boy closed. Both R, and his little sister, G, fell asleep. As we continued on, I kept coming back to that phrase.

Only hope can keep me together.

There’s more, of course, that drives us and propels us forward through life. There’s the bad—like greed, anger, and malevolence. And the good side, we have love. But implicit in love is hope. What, in fact, is love without hope? But is hope alone what keeps us able to rise about challenges, loss, and trauma? And, how do we learn about hope? Do we teach our children to hope? Are they born with it?

Only hope can keep me together. This was a lot of wondering for a Saturday afternoon, so, still curious, I turned to my trusty friend, Google. After scrolling through links to a number of children’s charities with hope in their names, an indication, I think, how hopeful people are that hope compels action, I found an article from the National Association of School Psychologists. In it, the authors summarized decades of research into the topic of hope, concluding that “accumulating evidence suggests that hope is related to life satisfaction and wellbeing (e.g., Gilman, Dooley, & Florell, 2006).”

While the authors focused primarily on hope within the school context, they noted that our understanding of—and capacity to—hope starts from our first moments. “Children begin to learn the mechanisms of hope from earliest infancy (Snyder, 1994), and parents are the first important agents to impact children’s hope. Parents model hope by the way they communicate, set goals, view challenges, and cope with problems.”

All the things children learn from their parents! Some—like hope—I had never considered. I’ve taught my kids to get dressed, brush their teeth, say please and thank you, use a fork and spoon, and a host of other tasks. I’ve emphasized being kind and being a good friend. I never, at least not consciously, thought about teaching my children to be hopeful. But I am. I took away from the article that it is likely ingrained everything I do as a parent.

On the other hand, I couldn’t help but think of those without the privilege of hope, a flashback to college psychology class when we examined Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, perhaps, but an important consideration for all of us. In a world where some people aren’t safe and don’t have access to food and shelter, hope may be a risk that’s too high.

While the Police’s song had to do with an island castaway looking for a way home and my son’s inquiry had everything to do with being six years old and asking a lot of questions about everything, it reminded me how much hope is present and active in each moment of our lives, and, for that, I am grateful.

Only hope can keep me together. 


Photo credit: the bbp via photopin cc