Building Resilience in Kids - (cool) progeny

Who would want to be a kid these days? If I was given the chance to stay in the present day, but miraculously be 6 again, I would probably pass. For pete’s sake, the SATs are scored out of 2400 now. I don’t even know what that’s about.

As with most generations, I look back on the “simple” days of childhood, when playing outside, going to girl scouts and renaming my Barbies were my main activities. If I was a kid today, I might be learning Chinese, going to academic summer camps and organizing a mission trip to Africa. These extra expectations and activities aren’t all bad, but they can put undue pressure onto kids who aren’t equipped to handle it. So, in this new, higher pressure world, what can we do to help kids be successful with the demands put upon them?

How do we build resilience in kids? How can we help them bounce back from adverse or trying situations? How can we help them persevere through struggle? How can we teach them not to give up? If there were really succinct answers to these questions, then we would all be supremely motivated, confident, resilient people ourselves. As it is, these ideas are tricky to focus in on and even trickier to develop strategies for promoting. But that’s what I’m going to try to do. We have to talk about the big ideas even if they’re rather nebulous.

See progress in terms of trying rather than “smarts.”

Dr. James Stigler is a psychology professor at UCLA. He has done research on learning around the world. He was quoted in a story done in November by NPR (Struggle for Smarts? How Eastern and Western Cultures Tackle Learning) about how the struggle for students in Asian cultures is commended rather than their innate ability (or smartness) to tackle a problem.

I hear parents comment on the smartness of their kids fairly often. It’s a pretty routine way to praise. “Smart boy” says the parent whose kid just put something back where it belongs. Praising smartness instead of “struggle” can be a means to an end. If I believe that the reason that I’m successful at things is because I’m smart, then what happens when I’m not successful? Am I not smart? If things have come easily for me because I’m smart and now they don’t, why should I continue to try? I’ve essentially reached the limits of my smartness.

On the other hand, if the trying and the struggle are focused on instead of my smartness, then I just need to keep on trying in order to be successful. When I give up trying, I will be giving up on success.

So when praising, parents should think about what their goal is: Do I want trying to be the ideal? Or do I want to emphasize their intelligence instead?

Give kids an opportunity to struggle

You hear the tell-tale harumph from the other room. It’s homework time and that noise could mean frustration, defeat, disgust. Your first instinct is to go in and check on them. Then you rethink and stay where you are, listening for more noises. By stopping or stepping back when our kids are frustrated, we are giving them the chance to try. We are giving them the chance not to give up. We are giving them the chance to persevere. If we do step in, then we are taking some of the responsibility away from them. This also means that we are taking away some of the pride that they would feel if they were able to figure it out themselves.

Kids need the chance to pick themselves up after a fall. They need the chance to fail at tying their shoes the first 30 times before getting it right. We can’t learn things for them and if we step in too often, then we also run the risk of not letting them learn to keep on trying. Don’t let that harumph be their cry for rescue that always is answered. Praise their perseverance and tell them that after they try for another 10 minutes, then you can help them. You might never need to if they can figure it out before then.

Building resilience and perseverance in kids is a tall order, but these two small strategies might start us on the right road; the road less traveled perhaps that has many pitfalls along the way- perfect for learning to overcome struggle.

“Everyone is expected to struggle in the process of learning, and so struggling becomes a chance to show that you, the student, have what it takes emotionally to resolve the problem by persisting through that struggle.”