Teaching Kids How to Be Resilient
By Erik Missio
Jul 25, 2017
At the end of the school year, we received our daughter’s Grade 1 report card. It had the usual mix of teacher commentary — some things were great and others were pretty good but needed a little work (which is fine because she’s seven). One of those in the second category involved remembering a rule to ask three classmates for help before getting the teacher to solve a problem.
I think this is a great policy. It encourages kids to communicate and cooperate with their peers to find a solution prior to having a grownup magically fix things for them. It got me thinking about how I sometimes handle (or prevent) my kids’ problems before giving them a chance to fix it themselves. And why that might be a bad thing.
If you’re constantly overprotecting your kids, you’re probably not doing them any real favours in the long run.
Solving my kids’ problems can come from good intentions, like when a favourite toy goes missing and I tear apart the house trying to find it. Honestly, though, this type of helping is also about making my life easier. If my son can’t find his precious stuffed rhino, our bedtime routine is going to be wrecked.
It’s similar to when my wife steps in when the kids want to put on sandals in the rain, wear white shirts in the mud, or skip hats in the sun. Enforcing a dress code means easier laundry and less sunburns, but by making decisions ‘for’ instead of ‘with’ them, are we preventing them from learning the logic of why those choices should be made?
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Like a lot of parents, I wonder if we’re doing more harm than good in trying to make everything OK all the time. When I sit in my daughter’s room until she falls asleep (rather than endure an hour of walking up and down the hall to reassure her we’re still here), we all may be happy in the short term, but I’m not giving her the tools she needs to fall asleep on her own.
Essentially, I worry whether I’m helping my kids become resilient — giving them the tools to learn from mistakes, bounce back from bad stuff, and generally handle the uncertainties of life. This idea of ‘resiliency’ has become a pretty big buzzword in both parenting and education circles.
The Resilience Research Centre, led by Dr. Michael Ungar of Dalhousie University, defines it this way: “In the context of exposure to significant adversity, resilience is both the capacity of individuals to navigate their way to the psychological, social, cultural and physical resources that sustain their well-being, and their capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided in culturally meaningful ways.”
Of course, preparing your kids to be independent, critical-thinking, healthily adaptable adults has always been one of the biggest components of parenthood, even before people used the ‘resiliency’ term. In our attempts to keep our kids safe (rushing to bandage skinned knees and cover sharp edges), happy (never allowing them to be bored) and comfortable (staying with them in the wake of nightmares or cutting their food for them), we’re not always doing that.
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Over on PsychCentral, psychotherapist and author Lynn Lyons warns against instantly accommodating your precious little one’s every need.
“Whenever we try to provide certainty and comfort, we are getting in the way of children being able to develop their own problem-solving and mastery,” she says.
When your kids don’t succeed at something, it’s also important you acknowledge it’s OK to be angry or sad before eventually finding a way forward.
In other words, if you’re constantly overprotecting your kids, you’re probably not doing them any real favours in the long run. So how do you help teach resiliency?
Some of the suggestions include encouraging more risks (within reason) and allowing your children to make mistakes. For example, let them try things you think are beyond their abilities — you might be pleasantly surprised. And even if they fail, they can learn from the experience. You can also help them by not instantly offering answers, and instead guiding them to think about how to solve a problem. Whether it’s a lost baseball tournament, a failed math test, or an art project that just didn’t work, when your kids don’t succeed at something, it’s also important you acknowledge it’s OK to be angry or sad before eventually finding a way forward. Emotions are healthy.
Ultimately, though, one of the most important lessons you can give comes from you modelling your own resilience when faced with frustrations or challenges. Depending on the situation, this can be difficult to pull off, of course. Part of your response to setbacks or problems might be getting support from your family, even if it’s something as simple as going on a trip to the playground together to de-stress and change your mood. After all, like the Grade 1 report card suggests, as long as you don’t expect an instant solution, it’s totally fine to get help from others.