How Do You Create Resilient Kids?

We’ve now had about a generation’s worth of helicopter parents, hovering over their children from the toddler years and in some cases, even into the workforce.  A local hospital, at which a close friend works, even had a seminar for managers about how to relate to the new generation of employees; her response was less than lukewarm.  But the meme is changing and more adults are questioning how helpful this approach has been, especially in light of the changes rippling through the national economy.  Paul Tough recently published How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which probes whether high grades are sufficient in and of themselves for success or whether a child’s grit and character are more important.  The key term in his title is grit, which we can define as the ability to persist through a difficult situation or circumstance.  In a future in which livelihoods are likely to be more hardscrabble and financial freedom more difficult to attain than before, grit is indeed likely to be key.  But how do we help our children develop this particular character trait?

Our society is full of examples of people who’ve overcome to achieve success.  In a recent interview with Time magazine, Dwayne Wade was asked whether his upbringing in a challenging environment contributed to his resilience; he responded that I give a lot of credit to my upbringing in Chicago.  It taught me to be tough, to want more, to want to be better.  It made me appreciate things.  But does that mean that our kids have to go through difficult childhoods in order to develop resilience?  What does that mean for parents who work assiduously to assure that their kids don’t encounter the inner-city life that claims far more youth than produces successful survivors like Wade?

Grit and resilience are – at a basic level – simply components of a person’s natural character; there are some who have the ability to persist in spades while there are a few who are simply so fragile that it doesn’t exist.  My own sense is that it’s akin to a bell curve with the majority possessing it in some degree, waiting to be brought out and developed by upbringing and life.  Unless our children encounter truly difficult circumstances in their youth, we can never know exactly how they respond when life forces them to that truly dark place that almost all of us will encounter in our lifetime.  Until then, all that we can do is assess what we do see every day and try to instill and teach that which does reinforce grit and resilience.  But what are some of those things that we can do?

First, understand that our kids are watching us and learning from us in everything that we do.  Our attitudes and behaviors, our responses and opinions all are being sopped up even though we aren’t aware of it in the moment.  How am I acting when things don’t go my way and what do I say?  In my childhood, the response to most difficulties was a shrug and the phrase you’ll have this; when I once asked my father – a Korean War veteran – how he could be so calm, his response was since there aren’t half a million Chinese shooting at me, it’s really not that bad.  This isn’t to say that there weren’t and aren’t going to be profanities when things screw up, but things go on. 

Second, don’t be afraid to tell your children no.  The earlier that they learn that things aren’t always to go their way, even little things, the more resilient they’re likely to be when a big thing doesn’t go their way. 

Third, don’t be afraid to let the kids struggle.  If she brings you homework for assistance, work hard – and it can be work – to assure that you’re only assisting and not actually doing the work for her.  In moments when sloughing off occurs, send her away despite her protests.  If she returns with a different attitude, then work with her and if not, let her suffer consequences.  This even goes beyond schoolwork.  When Youngest was three years old, I took him to a playarea and he was pushed down by an older child, who was being watched by his own mother.  Youngest got up and continued playing and was then pushed down again by the same child.  He looked at me and noted that while watching, I wasn’t moving; I was honestly curious as to what would happen and had decided that if occurred a third time, I would intercede.  The third time happened and just as I got up to go over to speak to the bully’s mother, Youngest arose, walked over and punched him in the face.  The bully returned to his mother, I returned to my seat and Youngest returned to play. 

Fourth, understand that whining and kvetching by children isn’t a sign that they won’t be resilient during tough times.  Almost all children whine to one degree or another and this is a function of inexperience.  They don’t yet understand how to process frustration, so it comes out verbally.  They don’t yet understand that their parents can’t or won’t always intercede on their behalf so that their complaints are useless.  They don’t have the experience of other difficulties against to which they can compare their present issue.  A splinter is painful, but they’ve not yet encountered the longer term pain of broken bones, muscle pulls and other ailments.  Whining, while mind-numbingly irritating in the moment, generally resolves with time and isn’t necessarily an indication that the child will fold.

Finally, let the children suffer consequences.  If school work isn’t turned in, let the grades suffer and if necessary, even impose consequences of your own.  If the child makes a poor choice with their spending money, don’t intercede to pay for what they really want when they’ve blown the money on something else.  Watching him suffer consequences can be a painful experience for a parent but it serves as an object lesson that Dad isn’t going to always shield him from the repercussions of his (in)actions.

Developing character isn’t a one-off event, but instead a lengthy process.  It can be fraught with frustration and angst along with quiet conversation and praise.  Surprisingly, I’m also learning that even with Eldest now in college, that character development is still occurring so my wife and I aren’t off of the hook.  There are certainly other things that might occur to you to foster resilience in your children, especially since they’re often so different in personality and circumstance; just stay the course and continue to work at it and hopefully, their dark place won’t swallow them when they meet it.

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