The Birth of Hopeful Thinking in the Pathway Thoughts

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To provide further clarification about pathways and agency goal-directed thoughts, and their relationships to the common linchpin of goals, it may be helpful at this point to explore how each component arises developmentally in early childhood. Hope, I would suggest, is established in the infant to toddler stage. Pathways thoughts are related to the three processes: the sensing and perceiving of external stimuli; the learning of temporal linkages between events; and the forming of goals. Agentic thinking is made up of the three processes: the perception of oneself as originating actions; self-recognition; and the forming of goals. Note that the formation of goals is common to both pathways and agent thinking; observe also that pathways and agentic thinking toward goals, taken together, form the basis of overall hope.

Pathways Thoughts

At this juncture, it may be helpful to discuss each of the processes. For the newborn, birth turns up the volume for the onslaught of new information that comes pouring in through the sensory modalities. Those senses must participate in some serous encoding of incoming information, however, so as to enable the newborn to survive. That is to say, each raw sensation must be encoded so as to have a particular meaning. As but one example, take the crucial matter of the newborn coming to recognize the face of mother among all those other faces that are peering at that infant (Barrera & Maurer, 1981a, 198ab). This exquisitely complicated sensation is supplanted by a perception, which is an inherently cognitive event as the infant recognizes and organizes the input.

Additionally, our infant immediately becomes enthralled by linkage lessons about a multitude of ‘this follows that’ sequences. In this process, young minds very quickly are understanding the chronology to the important proximal events in their lives. Such linkages pertain to the new-born’s very survival because crucial positive and negative consequences are to be discerned. For example, the infant must attend to signs that will lead to being fed in order to sustain bodily nourishment. These anticipatory thoughts appear to operate from the moment of birth and continue throughout the first year and beyond (Kopp, 1989). Typically, the immediate caregivers are hovering nearby so as to see that the infant’s needs are met, but responding so as to perfectly anticipate the infant’s very desire, even if it were possible, can interfere with the child finding out ‘this goes with that.’ This point should be made early in this book, because well-meaning caregivers who try to anticipate fully all of their child’s needs, in the short and long run, are robbing that child of self-insights about causality. This very issue leads to the next point.

The perception and linkage lessons just discussed also are tied to the infant’s ability to point out desired objects. These pointing behaviors are speculated to occur as early as three months (Stevenson & Newman, 1986), and they definitely are operative by 12 months (Schulman). By pointing, the infant is identifying a goal. It also should be noted that such pointing suggests that the child is selecting one from several goals. Again, I would implore well-meaning caregivers not to anticipate always what the infant wants because this interferes with that infant’s learning how to show other people what he or she desires. My point again is that by intervening and making things easier for our oVspring, at times we actually are undermining crucial lessons for those infants.

To summarize pathways thinking, infants quickly form perceptions of ‘what is out there,’ and they also learn that certain events co-occur temporally; furthermore the infant begins to focus on particular goals. By perceiving linkages to goals, the infant has acquired the basic processes necessary for pathways thinking.

Agency Thoughts

In the previous analysis of pathways goal-directed thinking, the infant lacks any personal awareness about being the instigator of actions aimed at goals. As the infant becomes capable of self-instigatory insights, agentic thinking becomes operative. This emergence of self-instigatory thoughts, however, is preceded by the develop-mental step involving the knowledge of selfhood (Lewis & Brooks-Gunn, 1979; Stern, 1985). Inklings about selfhood appear in the first several months, with this self-insight becoming well established in most toddlers by 12 to 21 months (Kaplan, 1978; Lewis & Brooks, 1978; Lewis & Brooks-Gunn, 1979; Mahler, Pine, & Bergman, 1975). Consider a simple demonstration as an illustration of such self-knowledge. If a dot of rouge is placed on the nose of a one-year-old, that baby will touch it when placed in front of a mirror, but younger babies will not (Lewis & Brooks, 1978). Similarly, from roughly 18 to 21 months, a ‘psychological birth’ occurs in which the child begins to use the pronoun ‘I’ (Kaplan, 1978).

As the recognition of self unfolds, so too do children begin to understand that they can cause things to occur. The talk of toddlers is instructive here, as they often refer to their capacities and volitions (Corrigan, 1978; van der. 1987). Their words that they comprehend that they are the authors of subsequent happenings. These statements implicitly reveal short-term goals, along with the toddler’s under-standing that she or he will initiate actions to attain those goals. The thoughts of selfhood, especially when paired with the insight that the self is making a move to a desired goal, form the basis for agency thoughts. Additionally, young protagonist producing the actual goal-directed movement that is driven by such perceived self-referential thinking.

Barriers Represent Yet Other Lessons

Before leaving the topic of the early developmental processes associated with hopeful thought, it is important to discuss the role that barriers play. Parents can readily see how upset their children become when encountering obstacles to their goals. Using hope theory to understand this phenomenon, impediments to goal pursuits should produce negative emotions, especially if the child encounters a blockage of some size. Conversely, the successful pursuit of goals should produce positive emotions, especially if the child perceives that he or she has overcome a barrier to reach the desired goal (Snyder, 1993, 1994b; Snyder, Harris, et al., 1991). Goal pursuits, whether successful or unsuccessful, result in positive and negative feelings, respectively.

Life places impediments in our paths, and it therefore is important for hopeful thinking to learn how to deal with such barriers. It is helpful to immediately intercede and show the toddler how to navigate the barrier. There is a necessary frustration tolerance that is learned by grappling with the roadblock through one’s own wits –even when the blocked individual is a small child. When toddler have truly wrangled with and are stumped by the barriers however, then through our (parents, caretakers, teachers, friends, etc.) role model-like coaching, we can and should help children in learning pathways and agentic thinking to apply to those impeded goals. It is useful in such instances to play detective and help the child to come up with some leads as to how to get around the impediment. In fact, I believe that high-hope thinking can result from successfully overcoming impediments. Thus, barriers are not something to be expunged from the child’s play venue. On the contrary, they provide crucial lessons that will be called upon for the rest of a child’s life. The pathway thinking is adaptive during normal, unimpeded circumstances, but it becomes even more valued when a ‘work around’ is needed.

Other researchers have discussed this dealing with barriers as an immunization-like process and have called it resiliency (Rutter, 1981, 1985, 1987; 1994); moreover, resiliency appears to confer several coping advantage. Hope is consistent with the various definitions of resiliency [a concept involving individual, family, and support system characteristics (Rutter, 1994)], and yet it offers a succinct two-component model for describing this positive, goal-directed way of thinking. As may be noted, resilient and hopeful children may not necessarily have led lives of ease in which their goals were readily attained. Elsewhere, Snyder and his colleagues (Snyder, McDermottt et al’ 1997) have suggested that many children’s books offer plots in which the young protagonist encounters adversities and find solutions to those problems. The importance of such plots not in the exact tactic the book hero seizes upon, but rather in the sustained efforts.

The Caregiver Connection

Goal-directed thinking almost inevitably arises in the context of other people who teach hope. Indeed, hope is perhaps one of the fundamental interpersonal gifts. Snyder and his colleagues said it this way: “Hope flourishes when the child establishes a strong bond to one or more caregivers during this infant to toddler stage. In American society, this bond typically is to a mother who provides the bulk of the interactive care. Instilling hope in children is based, in part, on their perceived security. Secure early attachments relate to a sense of empowerment and goal-directed thought. The caregiver provides a wonderful coach for learning all of the lessons that we have discussed earlier (e.g., forming goals, learning what goes with what, and so on). Because an attentive caregiver responds to the infant’s needs, that child is more likely to perceive himself or herself as having some sense of control in a big and otherwise confusing world.” (Snyder, McDermott, et al., 1997, p. 12)

It comes as no surprise, therefore, that adults who are high in hope recount establishing a close bond to a caregiver—a caregiver who spent precious time with them. These high-hope adults, in turn, grow up with very positive views about relation-ships in general. Indeed, they seek and enjoy the company of other people. They form strong attachments to others, and their goals involve the goals of other people—a we/me type of goal (Snyder, Cheavens, & Sympson, 1997). When children run into barriers, they may enlist others to help them with the problem. High-hope children are social creatures, and their ability to connect appears to come from early strong attachments to primary caregivers.

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It was an overview of how hope is ‘born’ during the first two to three years of life. Now the preschool, the middle, and the adolescent years will be covered. Each of these developmental periods offers opportunities so that children can solidify their earlier gains in hopeful thinking. Increasingly over time, children come to think about themselves and their goal pursuits in a more refined and complex manner. These are exciting times for expanding hopeful thinking.

The Preschool Years

The Word Explosion

The mind—from ages 3 through 6—expands from half of its adult size and weight to about 90% of its adult mass. This increase in size is accompanied by equally prodigious language growth—from an average vocabulary of about 50 words to almost 10,000. A two-year-old’s brief word phases also expand to the preschooler’s strings of multiple-word sentences. These language skills facilitate children’s capacity to convey goal-filled thoughts to their surrounding peers and adults. We use words as a shared system for identifying objects in our world and, as such, the goals and associated pathways and agency thoughts are labeled via language. Lacking a shared system of identifying the elements in our world, the power to hope also would vanish. It also should be noted that hopeful thinking reflects a means of interacting with the persons and things in our environments. In brief, language provides a system for identifying our goals as well as the pathways and agency thoughts linking us to those goals. For these reasons, the preschooler’s budding hopes are constructed via language.


A script is a sequence of events that applies for particular circumstances, and the child’s caregivers typically are the ones to teach such scripted matters. In a script the caregiver usually gives the child the background and reasons for the script that is to be learned. Perhaps it may be helpful to give an example of one such script -the getting ready for bed routine. For going to bed, it is important that the child establishes habits relating to personal hygiene (although children often implore these) as well as calming down so that they can get to sleep. This script usually starts with the bathroom, where the child may take a bath. After that, there is the teeth brushing, toileting, and getting into whatever the ‘sleep costume’ may be (often tee shirts for both boys and girls). Then, there is a possible recount of the day to one of the parents, perhaps a story to be read, and then off with the lights (with a minimum of bargaining). Despite their protestations, children do like the order and predictability of such scripts. In this sequence, the caregiver acts somewhat like a coach, eliciting the next behavior in the particular script sequence from the young child. Even as children get older, and mature into adults, research shows that it is fairly common for them to recall some of these childhood scripts and the particular events that were special to that script and its participants. Related research also shows that the mental scripts of children in the preschool period form autobiographical memories that can be recalled in adulthood (Snyder, 1994b).

Children truly enjoy hearing stories and telling them as well. What these stories are doing is giving the child yet other scripts for possible actions in given situations. After reading a story aloud a few times, adults will be amazed at how soon the preschooler literally can complete the end of sentences word for word. If the story in any way relates to the preschooler’s own life, then the scripts take on even more power. It is remarkably common that the hero in many children’s stories exemplifies hopeful thinking (McDermott & Snyder, 1999; Snyder, 1994b; Snyder, McDermott et al., 1997). Such tales also confront our would-be heroes with barriers or problems to be overcome, and here children can learn scripted actions to help get them out of a jam. Recent psychological research supports a time-honored principle, which is that children’s stories are rich with potential insights for finding out how to reach one’s goals, both during the easy and during the more difficult circumstances. Stories are scripts that can be stored for later use by young, formative minds.

Taking the Perspective of Others

Just as their script and language potentials enlarge, children see that there are many different kinds of adults and other children who play major roles in various stories. Part of really identifying with the actions that are taking place in a story means that the child’s mind also needs to become more adroit at seeing things from the perspectives of other people. This represents a very real change from the basically egotistical and self-absorption of toddlers in that preschoolers actually can envision things as they are visually perceived by others. Even more impressive, preschoolers can understand the reactions that others may be having. Our preschoolers become fascinated with when and how the rules apply to them, and they are able to adjust their own actions accordingly. These lessons are crucial for hope in a subtle manner—children seem intuitively to understand that they must take into account views of other people as they peruse their own goals. Greater perspective taking is part of this process, and preschoolers begin to craft their stories so that they do not contradict the desires of the important others (i.e., their pals or parents). Perhaps the capstone ‘hope’ lesson for the preschooler is a heightened awareness that the pursuit of one’s own goals takes place in the same social milieu where others also are wanting to attain their goals.

Ages 7 to 12: The Middle Years

The Reason for Reading Changes

As a preschooler, the child is trying to conquer the skills that will enable him or her to read. As an adult, can you think back to that time when the letters no longer seemed to be nonsense? Those letters formed a wonderful code that previously only the adults could decipher. But, in a short period of time, in an ‘all at once-ness,’ the words gave their secret meanings to you and they have continued to so deliver from that time forward. That grand achievement—the ‘I CAN READ’—was a source of revelry for some time, but not for terribly long. It was as if you had this new tool, the reading skill, and you were reading many different things—newspapers, comic books, books, signs, maps—and soaking in all the information that the words carried to your mind. From 7 through 12, the child thus turns to using reading as a means of increasing his or her information base.

From the perspective of hope theory, children in their middle years should be exposed to stories about goal pursuit activities. Most obvious here are biographies involving people who have set difficult goals and grappled with obstacles to attaining these goals. The history of advancement in any discipline has stories about prime movers who had a vision about their world and who worked to fulfill those visions. The tremendous increase in factual information, the child also is learning about the people and processes that produced the facts. As such, the lessons acquired through reading are two-fold–the facts themselves and the goal pursuit activities that yielded these facts. Children in this age range are particularly interested in the people and stories that underlie those facts. Stories about previous historical figures are intriguing, in part, because children truly hunger for good models of hope.

Bigger Memory and Quicker Too

From the preschool to middle years, the child’s memory not only can hold more information, but speed of retrieving and processing the information also decreases. These improvements in the size and speed of mental capacity have positive implications for goal-pursuit thinking in that the child can imagine goals clearly, along with the pathways to attain those goals. Analogous to the advantages of a computer with a large memory and a fast processing capability, there are hope-related advantages in the minds of girls and boys in their middle years.

Mine/Thine Personal Relationships

Though amazing advances occur in preschoolers’ abilities to take the perspectives of other people, the middle years provide even more marked advances in the process of balancing personal desires with those of other people. There is virtually zero tolerance for the middle age child who displays egocentric views; perhaps the worst admonition of all is the ‘Grow up!’ that will be hurled at the 11-year-old who is not considering the views of others. Social conventions become of utmost importance during this age range, and one’s goals must be pursued with the implicit (and often explicit) support of the all-important peers.

Settling upon one best friend also happens during these middle years. The taking of a perspective that accommodates the views held by the friend is crucial for strong friendships, and the thine/mine considerations are carefully tended by both partners. High-hope adults, almost to a person they report very strong friendships that are described as being mutually satisfying to both participants. High-hope people readily describe themselves as social creatures who enjoy the pleasures of having a few close friends.

Ages 13 to 18: The Adolescent Years

Relationships /Sexuality

As adolescent girls and boys mature sexually, their relationship pattern also changes to the typical exclusive dating pairings that allow for the exploration of sexual matters. Particular societies usually provide scripts about how these relationships should unfold, with the media, peers, and parents offering inputs. For their parts, adolescents spend considerable time in thinking about these relationships and their sexual components. Teenagers’ thoughts attend to intertwined goals related to having a relationship and expressing oneself sexually in that context. In this process, teenage girls seem to accentuate the romantic aspects of their relationships, whereas adolescent boys emphasize the sexual activities per se.

Consolidating Personal Identity

Toward the beginning of the adolescent period, several identities are entertained by boys and girls, with such identities or roles depending heavily on the situations in which they find themselves. Peer group pressure is extremely important in this process, and adolescents are pushed and pulled in almost every direction imaginable. Toward the later stages of adolescence, however, there is much more consistency to their behaviors, even across situations. Moreover, our adolescent begins to converge on a more specified set of career goals. Many high school seniors, for instance, have good guesses about their talents and related interests; some even have begun to point toward particular adult vocations. The late adolescent girls and boys also have clear notions of their mental and physical capabilities and leisure time preferences.

In the above paragraphs, the step-by-step processes whereby a newborn all too quickly passes from the small crib to the large, albeit shrinking home that we call our planet is discussed. Now the ‘baby’ has walked across the stage at his high school graduation and shook his diploma in the air as if to say, ‘Here I come world!’ His truck was jammed with remnants from childhood as he left. Surely, he must have packed his hope.

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