It may pain you to watch your preschoolers struggle to stack blocks exactly as they want only to have them tumble down, but stepping in to show them how it’s done may do more harm than good in the long term.
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Experts define resilience as the ability to encounter obstacles and find ways around them. When hit by a setback, people who are resilient pick themselves up and keep going. Child development professionals may disagree about whether or not resiliency is inherent to children, but the spate of books on grit argue it can be learned. The 20th century British pediatrician D.W. Winnicott’s “good enough mother” philosophy, for example, states there is value to a mother failing to meet every little need of a child, in that her offspring will come to understand that the world won’t always conform to their wishes.
Resilient kids understand that they are problem solvers and do not fall apart at the seams when things don’t go their way. Teaching your children resilience means equipping them with the tools to take on challenges, and not jumping to the rescue at each blip throughout their social and academic journey.
As much as it hurts, letting your kids fall down every once in a while versus hovering and helicoptering is shown to have positive consequences. There is a strong relationship between resilience, tenacity and coping mechanisms.
Kate Rope, author of the recent book “Strong As a Mother: How to Stay Healthy, Happy and (Most Importantly) Sane from Pregnancy to Parenthood,” writes that for moms and dads, resiliency is understanding and accepting your own parental shortcomings as a way to survive the many pressures of being an ideal caregiver.
Allow kids to fail
After the risky last-minute play that flipped the Super Bowl score and ushered the Philadelphia Eagles to victory, quarterback Nick Foles said the message he wanted to inspire the world with was the value of the years in which he faced adversity. “Don’t be afraid to fail,” Foles asserted.
Communicating Foles’s message starts young. When toddlers fall, Katherine Reynolds Lewis, author of “Good News About Bad Behavior: Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever and What to Do About It,” advises parents to pick them up, smile and keep going. If you rush over with a frantic and worried expression, you’re raising alarm bells about a minor setback. Standing back and letting your kids stumble — and then pushing them to try again — is a gift.
The power of play
Reynolds Lewis writes that unstructured play is actually one of the keys to building resiliency in children. In free play, children squabble, plan and get in disputes, and while it may look chaotic and may be unsupervised, the processes and resolutions children develop as a result lead to valuable problem-solving skills. Reynolds Lewis also cautions against overscheduling children to address the concern that kids with too much free time may get into trouble — overscheduled children also often get the message that they are valued on their performance in sports leagues and extracurricular activities over all else.
It’s alright to cry
Build resilience to adversity by listening and empathizing with children’s feelings, rather than distracting them from their emotions. View crying and expression of emotion as a part of this process. Thoughtfully listening to children share their concerns is much more empowering for them. A big part of helping your children become emotionally literate includes teaching them to discuss, identify, express and process emotions in tough situations. If a child has a challenge and is upset, it’s best not to say, “It’s OK” or “Toughen up,” or simply give them pity. Responses such as “How do you feel?” or “What are you going to do?” are much more helpful.
In a discussion about emotions, be prepared to accept that you may not like what you hear, but empathizing with your child’s feelings can be more powerful than giving solutions. It lets kids know that they can find support when they need it, and that their challenges won’t last forever.
Rachel Spector, MSW, has over 20 years’ experience in the field of early care and education; she currently oversees funding for early childhood development, including Miami-Dade County’s Quality Rating and Improvement System, at The Children’s Trust. For more information, visit thechildrenstrust.org.