The following is a post from Christopher A. Brown, Executive Vice President of National Fatherhood Initiative (NFI). Interested in blogging for us? Email here.
We humans have unique ways of fooling ourselves. One of the ways we fool ourselves is through a number of biases that research has shown lead to poor decision-making. I wrote about one of these biases—confirmation bias—in a recent post for The Father Factor.
Another bias that short circuits our decision-making is optimism bias. (Lest you think you’re immune to this bias, neuroscientists have discovered that our brains are hard-wired for it.) This bias leads us to overestimate good news, such as our odds of winning the lottery or ESPN’s March Madness Tournament Challenge. Conversely, it leads us to underestimate risk (bad news), such as the greater likelihood of dying in car accident than on a plane flight or that we won’t lose our shirts in Vegas. It’s the basis for one of the more well-known phrases for describing someone who is naïve—she/he “looks at the world through rose-colored glasses.”
Optimism bias is also the foundation of hope. People who are more prone to this bias than others are the ones we call “optimists.” They tend to look at the bright side of things. When we experience hardship or find ourselves in a tight spot, this bias generates the hope that is often critical to turning things around. Nevertheless, it is often problematic as it clouds our judgment when we make short- and long-term decisions, including those where our children are concerned. It clouds our judgment because it clouds and alters our reality.
As I reflect on my 18 plus years of fatherhood, I can point to many occasions when I fell prey to optimism bias, even though many people wouldn’t describe my personality as “rosy.” Because I have two daughters, I’ve done my best to remove the bias of my gender to see the reality that exists for girls and women. My oldest daughter is about to enter college and will major in sports journalism, clearly a male-dominated career. She’s wanted to be a sports journalist since I can remember, so I’ve encouraged her along the way—given her hope—because I know how challenging it will be for her to succeed. At the same time, I’ve been clear that she’ll face an uphill battle and will have to work hard to realize her ambitions.
So I was encouraged when I read a Harvard Business Review blog post about Denise Morrison, the chief executive officer of Campbell Soup Company, and the role that her father played in her success. It offers an excellent reminder of how important fathers are to their children when fathers see the world as it is and not as they want it to be while, at the same time, offering their children hope and providing a foundation for success. Denise says about her dad:
- "I didn’t realize it at the time, but he was setting down a blueprint for my career early on…If I wanted a stereo, [for example,] I would have to make a business plan about it — [explain] how I would pay for it and why I needed it and so forth…He was a man who early on believed that times were changing — that the world would open up in all ways to women…he had four daughters, so I guess he would have to believe that. But the fact is, he did, and he prepared us for it.”
What would have happened to Denise if she didn’t have a father who prepared her for the world as it was and for the world it is today? To fully understand her father’s impact, take a look at what Denise does aside from (although certainly connected to) her success in the corporate world. “Morrison is actively involved in the movement to stamp out childhood obesity and is a founding member of the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, an initiative of manufacturers and retailers to combat obesity in the marketplace, workplace and schools. The battlefront includes Campbell’s impoverished hometown — Camden, New Jersey — where the company launched its ‘Campbell Healthy Communities’ program in 2011, setting an ambitious goal to reduce childhood obesity and hunger by 50 percent by 2020 through initiatives that educate children and families about nutrition, cooking and exercise. The company has set aside $10 million for the program.”
Ask yourself the following questions as you consider the role of too much or too little optimism in your parenting:
- Are you too optimistic? Think about whether your optimism has fooled you recently and whether you tend to sugarcoat risk in an attempt to protect your children or simply to avoid difficult conversations.
- Are you not optimistic enough? Think about whether you didn’t provide enough hope to your children recently, perhaps in an attempt to protect them from the disappointment of failure. It’s a cliché, but we learn as much through failure as success.
- How much is self-reflection a part of your daily or weekly routine? Self-reflection is one of the most vital disciplines for good parenting. Create space to reflect on your day, your relationships (with your spouse and children), whether you see the world for what it is (not for what you want it to be), and whether you gave your children what they need to succeed.
- Do you have someone in your life who gives you the “hard news?” Think about whether you have a friend, family member, or someone else in your life who will confront you when you’re clearly off base with regard to your children. All too often parents surround themselves with people who are so like them that they never have to confront their own biases—these people reinforce optimism and confirmation biases.