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Resilience: Why so many parents today are getting it wrong

I’ve lost count of the number of articles I’ve read about the importance of developing resilience.  It’s mentioned all over the web and for good reason, as it's a critical coping mechanism.  Most of those articles however, are directed at developing resilience within the adult population.  Seldom do we talk about how parents can and should create resilience in children, particularly when there are many parents out there who are doing the exact opposite of what’s required. 

Now before I go further, there are many situations where children are having to learn the hard realities of life far more quickly than either they, or their parents, or anyone else for that matter, might like.  That’s of course, directly due to the economic reality in many parts of the United States and Europe.

Up here however, in Canada and in the more wealthy parts of the US, parents are often unknowingly destroying their child’s ability to develop resilience, simply because most people have no idea of how inner resilience really develops.

Is it learned?  Is it something you can teach?  Can you sit with your children pointing to a book and explain ‘resilience’ as if it was like learning to use the potty or teaching your child how to share with friends?  Does it come from trying to learn a skill over and over again until they can do it in their sleep?

No, it doesn’t come from any of those.  Resilience is not a skill in the traditional sense.  It’s an integral part of being.  It results from how you are brought up and the more you are exposed to situations that produce it, the more you will develop.  Yes, you can improve your inner resilience but it comes from experience and only experience can teach it.

Isn’t it ironic then, that just at the time when we need our children to develop resilience the most, all the experiences that produce it are coming under assault?   

So what are those assaults and how are they impacting our developing children in a way that might ultimately affect our very ability to survive as a species?  Well the assaults come under names that we might not even recognize.  Try ‘Self esteem’ and ‘Safety’ and all the words out there that are designed to make us feel good without doing anything remotely out of our comfort zone.

You see, resilience comes out of a struggle.  That’s it, there’s no other way to get it. Take the wrong bus and end up at the wrong stop will build you resilience but only if you aren’t able to place a rescue call for someone to pick you up.  Failing math and having to try harder: There’s a good one.  Having to go to another soccer game and try again because the last time you mucked up and everyone is mad at you.  Realizing that a course or activity you thought you'd enjoy is just terrible but sticking with it anyway, even though you're sometimes miserable.

All the things that we generally think of as negative experiences to be shied away from, are actually integral to being able to actively navigate the world as the adult and deal with the bumps of life.  And that is the world as it is now, not the potentially more difficult one on the horizon.  

And just as the world is getting harder with austerity measures becoming de rigueur and overwhelmed budgets, we’re parenting children in a way that ensures children will have a harder and harder time navigating that future.  All the experiences that create resilience are being wiped away.  

And it starts so young. Take the wonderful toys on display this Christmas and look at how they offer us a stunning example.  There’s the Fisher Price ‘Smart Cycle.’  Get all the experience of riding your bike without the experience!  No wind in your hair.  No thrill of taking the corner too fast.  No wobble when you move the handlebars too severely.  No need for all those worries when your bike is firmly hooked up to the TV.   Same for the Fisher Price “Fun 2 Learn Smart Fit Park.”  Who knew you didn’t have to go outside and get a tad bit frosty to have some fun this winter?

Safe, secure and coddled might sound good but it denies children the very coping mechanisms that will make the difference to them as adults.  

Babies are coddled and carried about long after they actively outgrow their bounds and want to explore.  Moms and dads come running the moment they squawk because they’ve been brainwashed to believe that meeting their children’s needs means never allowing the minimum of discomfort to develop.

Yet it’s that momentary discomfort and struggle that leads to real resilience and ironically, even pleasure.  In ‘Satisfaction: The Science of Finding True Fulfillment*,’ Dr Gregory Berns explains that satisfaction is more about the struggle than the achievement itself. In other words, it’s more about the journey and not the arrival.  The human brain needs new experiences that are challenging.

How many times have you heard that children should not be allowed to talk to strangers even though the librarian is a stranger, as is the bus driver?  How many children are not allowed to play at the playground without mom or dad in tow, following along behind?  How many young children are not allowed to navigate the yard alone?  Even the older ones are frequently not allowed on a city bus or not allowed to walk to soccer practice.  

For far too many children these days, life is a series of dulled experiences.  Experiences that have literally had the very life and inherent risk sucked right out of them.

So for all those children whose real experiences are reduced to an empty shell, I implore parents to understand their children’s real needs and take on board the real importance of struggle.  Try to resist stepping in to sweep away all your children’s problems as you’re simply not doing them any favours in the long run.

Children, especially little ones, will look to you to see how you deal with things that affect them.  Show fear of the world and they will too. Show undue upset at a minor bonk on their head or the fact that their friend has suddenly ditched them to play with someone else is, to give them the idea that such setbacks are overwhelming and deserve great attention, dissection and angst.  By all means discuss what happened but do so in a way, that allows them to develop resilience in the face of a negative event and that’s by not focussing on it or giving it undue attention.

The best way to discuss an event without giving it that undue attention, is to open the natural doors of communication and talk about it whilst focused on something else.  Try sorting the laundry basket together or sweeping the floor.  Talking to your children whilst engaged in another task is the way parents have offered support to their children for millennia.  

Ask yourself why it’s so much easier for people to talk to teenagers in the car?   It’s because you’re focused on the act of driving and that’s far less intimidating to anyone who wants to open up about something bothering them.  To chat whilst doing something alongside your child, is to create an environment that transcends minor difficulties and offers support in a natural way that helps children learn to bounce back from disappointments.

My father used to have a saying.  All of us will, at one point or other go in to the jungle, a period of difficulty that often defines life.  Some of us unfortunately get lost and fail to make it out at all.  Some will come out on their hands and knees and some will come out with the monkeys carrying the coconuts.  Whatever you do and however much you protect your child, they will at one point, enter that jungle. Let’s give them the skills to at least come out, coconuts notwithstanding.

*Satisfaction:  The Science of Finding True Fulfillment. New York, USA: Henry Holt & Company.  Chapter 7.

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