Probably the most fundamental qualities a child can have in order to have the requisite “survival skills” to make it in the world no matter what the odds, obstacles or set-backs is resilience and persistence – resilience to withstand whatever life throws at your child and persistence to keep on going in the face of those challenges.
I love the message depicted by the following image:
If there is one belief I hope that my children can hold onto in life, it would be this: never give up. As with most things in life, some children naturally have this mindset, and others need to work on it.
But how do you teach such an important lesson to a child? Can it even be taught?
“Resilience can be broken down into a set of specific abilities, and those abilities can be learned and applied over time,” Reivich says. By altering the way we think about adversity, we can actually teach ourselves, and our children, to be more resilient.
In my younger days, I used to challenge myself with activities to strengthen my mind. I started rock climbing to beat the fear of heights. I ran a marathon with very little training (not one of my brighter ideas, I’ll grant you, but I made it) just to see if my mind was stronger than my body and it was. They say that the biggest obstacle for any runner attempting to complete a marathon is “the wall” – thankfully, I didn’t “bonk”.
All these activities fed my belief in myself that I could endure and I would survive, no matter what. But they strengthened a foundation I already had. Where did the persistence and resilience stem from? When everyone told me I was crazy to quit dentistry, I still went ahead with it. It was like the more convinced they were that I would eventually come crawling back to dentistry with my tail between my legs (after having tried my hand at others things only to discover that I had it good with dentistry), the more determined I was succeed.
Was I just a kid who naturally had it? Or was it something my parents did when they were raising me that helped to instill this mindset? Even as I look at my two boys, it is evident that Hercules is a child who has a natural reserve of resilience. Aristotle is the one who will have to learn this lesson the hard way. As a parent who identifies more readily with Hercules, how do I teach such lessons to Aristotle without alienating him with my unrealistic expectations? The more I try to encourage Aristotle, it seems the more convinced he is that he can’t do it. Perhaps what sounds like encouragement to me is “pushiness” to him? So how do I speak his language?
Apparently, we can start by taking this quiz for parents – Are You a Parent Capable of Fostering Resilience? If you failed the test, don’t worry. There is still time to make changes, and these are some great ways to start:
- Relationships: Help kids make a strong connection with at least one caring adult or role model, other than a parent.
- Control: There are lots of important decisions a child can make at every stage of his development. Encourage your child to make decisions that he can make, and experience the consequences without your interference.
- Expectations: Expect your child to do her best, whatever that best is. Never let the child forget that there are people who care deeply about how well she does.
- Identity: Find opportunities for your child to show others what makes him unique. Show your child how to take genuine compliments for his achievements with grace.
- Safety & Support: No matter how chaotic your child’s life gets, remember that young people cope best when they feel safe, secure and certain about their next meal. Take advantage of dinner time to connect with your child and share something important with her about your life. Then ask her to share something important about hers with you.
- Contribution: Help your child find ways to make a contribution to his community. Volunteer activities help you a child see himself as competent, while gathering around your child peers and adults who will see him as someone special.
- Belonging: Help a child to feel loved and appreciated for being part of your family. Have a family pet? Make it the child’s responsibility to see that it gets fed and groomed. If the child is old enough to use the stove, let her cook dinner once a week. She can even help take care of a younger sibling. Being an active member of a family will bring a child a sense of belonging.
- Culture: Does your child know where his grandparents come from? How about his great-great-great grandparents? Help your child find out about his family’s cultural roots. Help your child develop a sense of pride in where he comes from. Encourage a child to bring a favorite family food to the next school class party; do something traditional for a birthday celebration; or invite friends to a cultural event.
- Acceptance: There are few things children crave more than acceptance. We all have successful moments in our lives, and we all have faults. Encourage your child to not be too hard on herself when she feels like a failure. Help your child find ways to improve. Remind her that everyone is a unique person, and that is what his or her friends and family love about her.
- Social Justice: Show your child how to stand up for his rights. If there is a battle your child can fight for himself, coach him on how to argue respectfully for his rights so that he’s heard.
- Let children experience adversity, real or contrived. A child who is caringly supported through, but not shielded from, news of natural disasters or war, deaths or illnesses of loved ones, parental divorce or job loss, and so on become stronger children (and adults) who are more empathetic to others facing similar stressors. Children who have the good fortune of escaping trauma during their childhoods need #2 below even more than those for whom life has provided sufficient challenges in the formative years.
- Allow age-appropriate “micro-failures.” Parents must be willing to let their children fall and pick themselves up. Making mistakes while young is essential to a child’s ability to overcome larger adversities later in life, and parents must resist the urge to intervene and rescue. Skinned knees and B-minuses are character building!
- Participate sparingly in the “Congratulatory Culture.” It can rob children of the ability to appreciate a job well done. When children are glowingly affirmed for everything they do — usually out of adult fear that the child will have low self-esteem — they are deprived of authentic feedback and become cynical, mistrustful of effusive adults, and doubtful about their abilities. In other words, excessive A-pluses, blue ribbons and hyperbolic praise usually backfire.
- Model comfort with mild anxiety. Let kids solve their own problems when adult intervention is not truly needed. Put children in situations where they need to be flexible, to explore, to structure their own time, to socialize without supervision, to be out of their comfort zone. For example, let a city child walk in the woods with a friend in the country. Bear attacks are exceedingly rare, but projected parental anxiety is exceedingly common and harmful.
- Do not overindulge. It is OK for kids not to have everything they want or everything their friends have, and to have to earn some of the material things they desire or the privileges they seek. It is OK for kids to have to wait or to prove that they are responsible.
- Love your children unconditionally. It’s become a platitude, and unfortunately that undermines a very important message: Parents must lovewho their children are, not what their children are and do. They must love them even if they make a B-minus, even if they do not make the travel team (and schmoozing/threatening the coach is forbidden). Parents of course still love their children, even when they do not keep up with the Joneses’ children, but kids often mistake parental competitiveness and disappointment for lack of love.
- Cede control when reasonable. Let children, in an age-appropriate fashion, have as much power, as many choices and as many opportunities to succeed or fail as possible — without worry that parents will disapprove, swoop in or take the control back.
- Teach children to be independent but to seek help when needed, and to understand that these are not mutually exclusive. Kids who feel empowered to be agents of their own destiny, but to ask for help along the way as needed, are operating from a position of strength and confidence. The latter without the former leads to weakness, while the former without the latter leads to folly.
- Help your children develop at least one talent. While the differences between kids who have one, two, three or more areas of interest and accomplishment are negligible, the difference between kids with one talent and none are significant. Adults should open as many doors as possible for kids to explore interests when they are young, and to proactively nurture at least one athletic, artistic, academic or other area of talent that the child can be proud of as he or she grows up.
- Teach and model social justice. Show children how to stand up for themselves and others, how to be empathetic, how to carry out thoughtful acts for others, and how to integrate acts of service into daily life, throughout life. This is both formative to developing resilience, and a positive outcome to doing so. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change you seek in the world.” If the key adults in kids’ lives live this way, the kids will be more likely to follow suit.
- Reward persistence. Recognize and point it out when your child works at something, regardless of the result. Cheer when they don’t give up, even when what they won’t give up is their argument with you. That doesn’t mean you give in to the argument. It means you applaud their persistence and find a win/win solution that works for both of you. For instance, if your child wants to do something NOW, maybe he’ll settle for doing it another time, if you make a firm date, put it on the calendar, and fantasize with him about how terrific it will be.
- Aim your child at a door, not a wall. If you have the kind of child who never gives up, she may routinely beat her head against the wall (or make you want to beat yours.) To avoid that, teach her to look for the openings. For instance, teach and model that if she finds solutions that work for both people, she’s more likely to get what she wants. Instead of seeing other people as obstacles to what he wants (“That other kid always gets the lead in the school play”), empower him to see that he is always in charge of himself and can keep working until he reaches his goal (“You have a role too….If you play that role as well as you can, you’ll get a bigger role in the next play.”)
- Expect your persistent child to resist you at times. If your child has the courage of his convictions, then he wants what he wants and he isn’t necessarily open to alternatives. That’s okay. As he gets older, he’ll gain flexibility. Just expect more tantrums than usual during the toddler years.
- Find win/win solutions. Your persistent child is on a mission. If you want her to work with you on your agenda, it will help enormously if she feels you’re willing to work with her on her agenda, too. Controlling parenting, research shows, always creates rebellion. But with persistent kids, it’s especially important to teach your child how to identify each person’s key need and find a solution that both of you can live with. If you weren’t taught how to do this as a child, it’s a lot of work–but a valuable life skill for both of you.
- Help with transitions. Kids who are persistent usually have a harder time with transitions than other kids. So come up with a plan to support your child and make both of your lives easier. Minimize the number of transitions in her day. Build them into routines so she comes to expect them. Connect with her before you ask her to make a transition. Help her take something with her from one situation to the next (so if she’s playing with her animals, maybe one joins her as you head to the grocery store.) Always give warnings and prepare her emotionally.
- Let him grieve. Persistent kids have big feelings. They will pass sooner if you acknowledge, with empathy, what he wants and why he wants it, and at the same time set firm limits. The firmness of your limit removes any possibility that hounding you will get him what he wants, so that he has no choice but to feel his disappointment. That means he may erupt with grief, but that’s a good thing; if you can stay understanding, he’ll show you his disappointment and learn the resilience to survive disappointments in the future. “You really wish you could have that….It looks like so much fun to play with….You’re so disappointed I’m saying No…And the answer is still definitely No. I’m sorry we can’t buy it today, but that’s for a special occasion, like your birthday.” Be aware that he might still have a meltdown and he might even continue his meltdown all the way home. People may stare. That’s okay. He’ll learn that he doesn’t always get what he wants, but he gets something better–a parent who understands. Eventually, your kid will be the one who achieves big dreams against all odds, because only persistent people can do that.
- Practice stopping. Kids who are persistent often can’t stop themselves when they really want something. They need our help to let something go. Younger kids will often need to cry before their good mood is restored. Give them practice “stopping” by playing games like “Mother May I?” and “Simon Says” and be sure you’re doing Preventive Maintenance to help them be more flexible. With older kids, agree in advance what they can do to transition emotionally. For instance, come up (together) with a secret code that you can use when she is really going too far and just needs to stop and regain her equilibrium. (Don’t overuse this code word, or it will lose effectiveness!) Agree on what she will try to do to calm herself when she hears the special code word, and how you can help her. For instance, maybe she just needs to retire to her favorite Cozy Corner and read her favorite book or listen to an audio book, to shift gears. Then (after warning her), practice.
- Practice makes perfect. Many kids worry that they aren’t good enough, which makes them give up easily. Help your child understand that no one becomes accomplished overnight. All experts have worked for years to accomplish excellence in their field. Encourage effort and practice, more than accomplishment. Here’s a brush up on effective praise. Kids who are perfectionists, or who seem apprehensive about trying anything new often benefit when parents change how they’re encouraging or praising.
- Offer emotional support. If your child wants to quit three weeks into the dance class, listen to why. Maybe it just isn’t what she thought it would be and she’d rather do soccer than ballet. That’s fine; part of finding our passions is to experiment. But if she wants to quit everything she starts, then something is getting in her way, and that something is almost certainly fear. She needs your help to work through her fear, or it will begin to pervade other areas of her life, and you’ll find her shrinking back from trying new things in general. Help her work through those fears by playing with her about them, for instance, by playing dance class at home. Let her be the teacher while you’re the student. Bumble and let her giggle at what a terrible student you are. Seeing someone who just can’t do anything right will help her feel better about her own lack of perfection. If playing isn’t enough and she needs to do some crying, that’s okay too. Tell her that she needs to finish the six weeks of the class, and you’re sorry it’s so hard. If you’ve done enough playing, her feelings will be close enough to the surface that she’ll probably cry. That’s good — exactly why you set the limit that she needs to stay in the class. A good cry may be all she needs to walk into the next class feeling more courageous, and come out feeling even better. What if she cries about it a few times and still doesn’t want to go back? Then maybe there’s more going on than you realize. Is the teacher somehow scaring her? Is there something happening that’s upsetting? But most of the time, once kids laugh and cry about it, they go happily — and often, once they’re past this hurdle, they end up loving it and wanting to do more. But even if she doesn’t, she’ll have learned something positive about her own inner resources.
- Model perseverance. Show your child how a person can set out to master something and move through setbacks to do so. Talk about your feelings as you do it. “I tried it this way. That didn’t work. Now I am going to try it that way. I don’t give up easily.”
- Stay connected. If you have a persistent child, it’s a matter of integrity to her not to quit. So if there is something she needs to give up on (whether it’s your toddler going after that breakable across the room, your preschooler running away from you in the parking lot, or your elementary schooler shouting out answers in class) give her something she wants even more to go after instead. Usually, what kids want most is that warm, rewarding relationship with mom and dad, as long as you work to re-connect, especially when you’ve felt worn down and angry.
- Teach your child to take a break. As Albert Schweitzer said, “A man can do only what a man can do. But if he does that each day he can sleep at night and do it again the next day.” Teach your child to monitor his mood and take a break when he needs to. “We’re both getting frustrated, so let’s take a break. We’ll tackle this again tomorrow.” Sooner or later, he’ll make a break-through, and it’s not a bad idea to stop before he gets too frustrated.
Persistence is unfortunately a two-edge sword. There are probably times in your child’s life when you wish they were less persistent because it makes handling their behaviours much harder from a parenting perspective. As much as we would like to crush these behaviours, it is important to remember that persistence has its value and when your child is older, you will appreciate his persistence.
At its most basic and fundamental level, teaching persistence and resilience to our children boils back to our children’s mindset (there is a book on this by Carol S Dweck). You can allow your child to develop a fixed and limiting mindset, or you can encourage them to develop a growth mindset. A fixed mindset can cripple them for life, while a growth mindset can open a whole world of opportunity.