Three Components of Hope

My daughter’s third grade teacher had a unique way of addressing her students when they felt discouraged. She would quote the first line of an Emily Dickinson poem: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers…”. She firmly believed that the first step toward soaring was choosing to be hopeful.

Turns out that numerous studies support that perspective. Hope is an essential ingredient in a meaningful life. It motivates us to act even when we are unsure of success. It sustains us when our efforts fall short and we have to try again to reach our goals.

Researchers have found that hope is not just wishful thinking or naive optimism. Rather, hope consists of at least three components: desire, belief, and motivation. Each of these aspects contributes to a child’s sense that they have the power to shape a positive future for themselves and others.

Desire is about wanting something to happen. For children to have hope, they need to want things. Sometimes what they want may seem shallow to adults, such as their desire for a piece of candy or a toy they see advertised. Other times we applaud their desires because they seem more worthy (e.g., wanting to win a competition, make a good grade, or take care of a pet). Regardless of how we might evaluate their longings, acknowledging children’s desires can foster their ability to hope

However, desire alone does not guarantee hopefulness. Children also need to believe that what they desire could happen. While some children are more naturally optimistic, others need support to see that success is possible. They might want to reduce their use of disposable plastics but see all kinds of ‘insurmountable’ obstacles (e.g., no time to wash utensils after lunch at school, not remembering to bring a reusable water bottle to practice) that stand in their path. Brainstorming ways to overcome potential problems and pointing out previous successes can help kids believe in themselves.

The third piece of the hope puzzle is motivation: children need to see a reason to try. They might want to make new friends and believe they can relate well with others, but if they can’t see why making friendly overtures would be a useful thing to do, they won’t feel hopeful about actually succeeding. They may be afraid of trying and failing, which undercuts hope. Recognizing kids’ fears and offering positive reasons for moving forward may provide the motivation they need to hope for the best.

Developing hope, then, is a complex process. Just because one is hopeful doesn’t mean doubts and anxiety go away. Instead, learning to hope encourages children to reflect on how they will turn their desires, beliefs, and motivations into successful actions. Hope carries them through the rough spots and prevents despair. Affirming that hope persists even when challenged empowers children to choose how they will regulate their emotions to get where they want to go.



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