Mother’s Explanatory Style and Children’s Optimism

Martin Seligman, Learned Optimism, New York: 1990, 128-9

Children’s antennae are constantly tuned to the way their parents, particularly their mothers, talk about causes of emotionally loaded events.  It is no accident that “Why?” is one of the first and most repeated questions that young children ask.  Getting explanations for the world around them, particularly the social world, is the prime intellectual task of growing up.  Once the parents get impatient and stop answering the never-ending why questions, children get their answers in other ways.  Mostly they listen closely when you spontaneously explain why things happen–which you do, on average, about once a minute during speech.  Your children hang on every word of the explanations you give, particularly when something goes wrong.  Not only do they listen for the particulars of what you say, but they listen keenly to its formal properties: whether the cause you cite is permanent or temporary, specific or pervasive, your fault or someone else’s.

The way your mother talked about the world to you when you were a child had a marked influence on your explanatory style.  We found out about this by giving explanatory-style questionnaires to one hundred children and their parents.  The mother’s level of optimism and the child’s level were very similar.  This was true of both sons and daughters.  We were surprised to find that neither the children’s style nor the mother’s style bore any resemblance to the father’s style.  This tells us that young children listen to what their primary caretaker (usually their mother) says about causes, and they tend to make this style their own.  If the child has an optimistic mother, this is great, but it can be a disaster for the child if the child has a pessimistic mother.

These findings raise a question: Is explanatory style genetic?  Can we inherit it from our parents, as we seem to inherit a disconcertingly large portion of our intelligence, our politics, and our religious outlook?…Unlike these psychological traits, the pattern of explanatory style that we find in families suggests that it is not heritable: The mother’s is similar to both the sons’ and the daughters’; the father’s is similar to no one’s.  This is a patter of results that does not fit any ordinary genetic model.


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