01/31/2013 11:20 am ET Updated Apr 02, 2013

How to Bridge the Generational Hope Divide

Almost all fifth- through 12th-graders -- 95 percent -- say it is likely they will have a better life than their parents. However, in a separate Gallup poll, half of U.S. adults aged 18 and older say they doubt today's youth will have a better life than their parents.

This hope divide might limit the support that adults are willing to give children to help them reach their full potential. Undoubtedly, some adults will be tempted to explain to children that there are economic and political circumstances in the world that children can't understand -- ones that make their future look less rosy. Adults might even point out that many children are fantasizing about a future that is out of their reach. These cautions are grounded in some wisdom, but they also might be associated with the pessimism adults have about our own future, our personal vulnerabilities, or our profound inability to predict the future.

To bridge the hope divide we have to do three things.

First, we must help children come up with a positive, unvarnished assessment about what the future holds. Children are great at visualizing what they want to happen next in their lives. If we foreclose on their future -- setting expectations for youth lower than they have set for themselves -- we could permanently dash their hopes of having the two things most of them want: a good job and a happy family. These conversations have to incorporate their thoughts about the future, not just our ideas about what they need to do to have a better life. David Vinson, superintendent of the Wylie Independent School District outside of Dallas, told me that, as adults, "We spend a ton of time talking with kids about college but very little time about their future." Maybe if we help them paint a compelling picture, the future will pull them forward.

Second, we need to introduce our children to people who are willing to invest in them. Good parents, great teachers, and inspirational mentors cast their lot with children. Their insistence on setting the bar high for all children is what makes them so different from the hope killers masquerading as caring adults who insist on children being "more realistic." I asked Suzanne Hince, executive director of TeamMates, one of the nation's largest in-school mentoring programs, what she looks for in a hopeful adult mentor. "I'm looking for a person who is excited about the future and sees talent where others miss it or misunderstand it." Find someone who meets those two criteria and create an excuse for your child to spend time with them.

And third, we need to teach our children how to pursue their big goals. Our Gallup Student Poll has taught us that American students are high on will but short on ways. They know what they want and they are confident they can achieve it, but they haven't a clue where to start and what to do over time. A straightforward hope-mapping exercise can help them figure out how to get from Point A, where they are now, to Point B, where they want to be. Over time, they will learn a simple hope strategy called Plan B'ing, which boils down to having a back-up plan at all times.

Parents and adult mentors can also encourage children to discover and apply their unique talents to help them achieve their future goals.

None of us wants to bet against our kids. We want to make sure our young people have the opportunities to get ahead and realize their version of the American Dream. So some of us, more than half, have to bridge the great hope divide by talking to children about their future plans, jointly outlining the steps needed to get there, and then supporting children like their futures depend on it.

Shane J. Lopez, Ph.D., a Gallup Senior Scientist, is the world's leading authority on the psychology of hope. His forthcoming book Making Hope Happen will be released March 2013.