It was Joey, a little boy I met at a nursery school in Leeds, who first set me thinking about resilience.
“Joey has so much to deal with at home,” his teacher confided. “Dad’s away, I think he’s in prison, and Mum has five children to look after, and she suffers from depression. There’s no money at home — yet look at him. He’s doing so well.” We both watched the laughing four-year-old running around with his classmates in the playground. “Sometimes he gets a bit stressed and anxious, but he soon cheers up again. He’s a lucky boy. His natural nature seems to be so positive.”
As an education correspondent with a national newspaper, I used to visit nurseries and schools all the time. Not long after I met Joey I was at a very posh prep school in Dorset where, as the head walked me through the classrooms, he paused at the desk of a sad-eyed child, bent down, and said a few quiet words of encouragement. The child looked dolefully back at him. “Some of our children are given everything they could ever want in life,” he said, with exasperation, later, “except the one thing they need most of all — the emotional grit to get through their week.”
I thought about my own three children, well on the way to being grown up by then. How gritty were they? One was like Joey. No matter what happened to her she seemed to be able to take it in her stride and come out stronger. My other two were definitely more thin-skinned. They took their mistakes and failures really personally, and often found it hard to regain their confidence and move on.
But when I started to read up about grit and resilience I definitely wished I’d helped them develop more of it. Because resilience CAN be grown, and it’s a gold-star quality when it comes to helping children live and learn well. It not only helps them bounce back from setbacks, but encourages them to think creatively about how to get round difficulties, and be optimistic that they will be able to accomplish whatever they set out to do. It also helps them look realistically at things that happen to them and not to ‘catastrophize’ every problem.
At school, these qualities are real fairy dust. Imagine two primary school children taking the same maths test and both getting a poor result. The first child accepts what has happened, thinks about the reasons for it, then decides to work harder and do better next time. Meanwhile the second child believes the bad test result simply confirms their belief that they are ‘useless’ at maths and will ‘never get it’ and loses more confidence and self-belief. Then imagine these two attitudes repeated a hundred times a day, day after day, in all kinds of different ways, wearing a groove in each child’s individual psyche. Which child will be more successful in school, and go on to live a happier life?
We all know the answer, and none more so than educational researchers who have carried out masses of studies showing that when children are actively taught to be more resilient, their school grades go up, they make more friends, and they are generally more cheerful and optimistic. In fact, this quality is now considered so central to adult life that the United States’ army is paying out huge amounts of money to train men and women returning from the battlefield in it.
But the best kind of resilience is the kind that starts early, and we parents are by far the best people to do that training, so how can we help our children develop this vital ingredient? There are loads of small practical steps we can take, but underpinning them all are four key principles.
- Be sure your child always knows they are safe and loved, because without that wrap-around security it is almost impossible to develop real resilience. Aim to be steady and consistent (not easy) and uphold regular routines. Set boundaries, stay calm in a crisis (really not easy!) and model cheerful, optimistic behavior even when things go wrong ( almost impossible?).
- Encourage your child to become competent, independent and able. Expect them to help at home from an early age — setting the table, making their bed — encourage them to pick themselves up after tumbles, and later on help them learn skills like swimming and riding a bike. Encourage effort and persistence and help them see how these lead to good results. And encourage them to start solving their own problems. “Where do you think you should put it, to keep it safe?”
- Allow them to make mistakes, and experience sadness, disappointment and failure. This can be really, really hard, but our child needs those experiences to develop ‘resilience muscles’ . Don’t strive to meet their every need. Say ‘no’ and help them deal with the frustration. Acknowledge when they are sad, let them work through difficulties, and allow them to feel the uncomfortable consequences of things like being mean to their brother or sister, or breaking their promises. ‘Lawnmower’ parents, who constantly smooth the grass in front of their children’s feet, are really not doing them any long-term favours.Help them learn about their emotions and how to handle them. How do they feel when a friend is horrible, or something scares them? Where in their body do they feel it? Give them names for feelings early — happy, sad, excited, shy, nervous — and encourage them to talk about them and get to know them. Talk about how feelings are there to guide us, but sometimes get in our way. Encourage them to see that everyone has difficult feelings, but that these feelings are temporary, and can be controlled. Teach them practical techniques for coping with anger and anxiety — walking away, taking deep breaths, thinking about times when they have been calm and in control.
- Help them run their brains. As they grow up, teach your child that their brain responds to what they tell it and that they can choose to tell it an unhelpful story (“I’m really bad at drawing. I’m useless at everything.”) or a helpful one. (“I’m not much good at drawing, but the painting I did last week was really colourful and got pinned up. And I’m good at writing and telling jokes. ”) Explain that it’s like a movie, and that they can run their own movie — although the best movies are always those that stay at least a bit real. Imagining you have secret superpowers can be a great way of privately boosting your confidence, but isn’t good if you then grow up thinking you don’t need to bother with homework, or can jump six-foot walls on your skateboard.
Hilary is a former education correspondent with The Independent, and a parent coach. Her e-book Backbone:grow the character your child needs to succeed is just out and available for download on Amazon http://amzn.to/1fYtnuG. Her new book The Real Secrets of School Success is out in May.