We would love to live in a world so idyllic that children wouldn’t have to be concerned about peer pressure, bullying, parents fighting or divorcing, lurking strangers, disease or death, poverty, crime, terrorism, or war. We fantasize that we could safeguard them from every possible loss, heartache, and danger. We’d like to wrap our children in a downy quilt and insulate them from every misfortune. But even if we could, would it really benefit them?
If we could immunize children from all disappointments and stress, would they have the chance to experience the satisfaction of facing a challenge, recovering, and discovering that they are able to cope with tough situations? Would they be able to revel in success or experience joy and pleasure if they never faced some struggle, failure, or rejection? Would they recognize and appreciate good fortune if they never knew its opposite? If we could wave a magic wand to isolate children from the pain around them, wouldn’t we produce cold individuals incapable of empathy and unable to feel and express love, compassion, or a desire to help others? Would they be prepared to make the world a better place?
Dr. Kenneth R. Ginsburg begins his book Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings with the above paragraphs. He explains that as parents we are always looking to shield our children from negative experiences. We are always avoiding pain and struggle. While this can be good much of the time, there is also a benefit to struggling, overcoming that struggle, and then being stronger for the next challenge. That ability to fail and then bounce back stronger is resilience – a quality that many psychologists and researchers believe might be the single most important character trait a child can gain in his or her formative years.
How can we help children become more resilient? Robert Brooks, the author of Raising Resilient Children, suggests the following steps that do not place the child directly into negative or painful experiences:
Provide opportunities for chesed. Get your children out there, helping those less fortunate or those in need.
Listen closely. See the world through your children’s eyes. If you have empathy, you can better help them care for others.
Be a strong moral role model. If you show that you are committed to living ethically and taking care of others, your child will be more likely to follow suit.
Help manage destructive feelings. Destructive feelings shouldn’t be ignored; they should be worked through.
How does caring for others connect to resilience? The whole way we parent is connected to resilience. One of the findings of a Harvard study was that “Parents who seek to preserve their children’s happiness by constantly protecting them from adversity can rob them of coping strategies that are crucial in their long-term happiness.” That is all about resilience.
Dr. Brooks explains, “If we examine our parental goals, it would not be an over-simplification to conclude that realization of these goals requires that our children have the inner strength to deal competently and successfully, day after day, with the challenges and demands they encounter. We call this capacity to cope and feel competent resilience.
“Resilience embraces the ability of a child to deal more effectively with stress and pressure, to cope with everyday challenges, to bounce back from disappointments, adversity, and trauma, to develop clear and realistic goals, to solve problems, to relate comfortably with others, and to treat oneself and others with respect. Numerous scientific studies of children facing great adversity in their lives support the importance of resilience as a powerful force. Resilience explains why some children overcome overwhelming obstacles, sometimes clawing and scraping their way to successful adulthood, while others become victims of their early experiences and environments.”
Another way of describing resilience is grit. Paul Tough, in his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, explains that character is created by encountering and overcoming failure. And, character is just what children need to succeed.
Persistence. Persistence is about knowing what you want and not stopping until you get it.
When struggling, we need to push ourselves in order to reach our goal. Like all non-cognitive skills, persistence cannot be taught through a worksheet. As parents, we can be role models for our children and teach them that when things are tough, they still need to keep trying. Setting our own goals (whether they are fitness, educational, or personal goals) and then sharing our triumphs and failures with our children will teach them that it is okay to fail and then keep on working towards a goal. Parents and educators need to model persistence and encourage second, third, and twentieth tries.
Grit. Grit goes hand in hand with persistence. Children who fail and then pull themselves up and start again are exhibiting grit. They know that though it is painful and their knees are scraped, they can try again. Without grit, there is no persistence – and every failure is final.
Self control. A famous study in the 1960s, often dubbed the “marshmallow study” tested children on their self-control. The very young children were handed a marshmallow and told that they could get a second one if they waited until the researcher came back in the room in order to eat the first. Some children ate the first right away and did not receive a second, but others sang or talked to themselves in order to avoid eating the marshmallow. Eventually, when the researcher returned, those children received a second marshmallow. The researchers then followed those children for the next several decades.
What the researchers found astounded them. Those children who had managed to control themselves in order to get the second marshmallow had more successful marriages, careers, and lives in general. The ability to control themselves and delay gratification ended up allowing them to set goals and achieve them even if it meant waiting a bit along the way. Helping children set goals and then working with them to achieve them is an excellent way to develop self-control.
Curiosity. Curiosity is about asking questions and wanting to know how the world works. The truth is that you cannot “teach” curiosity. You can, however, model curiosity when your children are little – asking your own questions and working with him to look them up. You can also answer his questions, regardless of how silly or frequent they are. These questions will get longer and more important and as time goes on he will develop skills to answer them himself.
Self–confidence. Self-confidence is about believing yourself. In order to take risks, fail, and continue again, you need to be confident that you are strong and capable. Part of self-confidence comes from success – and part of it comes from overcoming failure. As parents and educators, we have to let children fail when they deserve to fail in order to help them learn to overcome that failure.
Like Dr. Ginsburg argues, without a little challenge and struggle, children cannot truly recognize good fortune and empathy. As parents and educators, we have the responsibility to teach our children compassion and gratitude through experiences that foster resilience.