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Raising Resilience

Today’s parents are often faulted for making their children’s lives easier to the point that those children don’t have much experience dealing with adversity. As a result, others view those kids as “soft” and “spoiled.” How do we help children and young people develop and acquire resilience? First, parents and other caring adults have to permit, even create, opportunities for their kids to fail. Then, those parents and adults have to be skilled in using failure as a learning tool!

The Value of Failure

The Oxford dictionary defines resilience as “the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties.” Put another way, resilience is our propensity to grow stronger through failure. It is fair to assume that you want the best for your child. This means that you want your child to succeed and excel, which includes rising above the challenges that might impede their success. Since we are rarely exceptional the first time we attempt anything, deliberate practice precedes skills acquisition. To succeed, your child can be expected to learn and practice the skills that will lead to being successful, whether it is a free throw, long division, or a pirouette. We can also expect that some skills will come more readily to some children while remaining elusive for others.

The road to excellence is never laid out neatly before anyone, including your child. Success is inherently tied to failure. Parents can expect that success comes mostly from continued effort after falling short in the process.

Though failure may never be our good friend, it can be a great teacher. We learn valuable lessons from adversity. How we respond to failure often determines how successful we will become at anything. Failure is inevitable for all of us and is a necessary part of learning. Failure also gives us opportunities to develop resilience. Those who are overly protected from failure postpone the inevitable failure that awaits them when there aren’t those around them to cushion the failure. All children deserve to have sensible adults in their lives who understand that it is how we react to failure that is the real challenge. Such adults help us understand that trying hard is in itself a good thing, because though we will fail from time to time, we grow stronger in the process. We develop resilience.

Fall Down Seven Times, Stand Up Eight

This Japanese proverb teaches us that one of the great equalizers in life is that it is never a matter of whether we will fail, but a matter of when we will fail and how we will react to that failure. How we handle our failure as adults comes in large measure from how we deal with failure as children. I urge all parents to do their best to re-frame their concept of “failure.” When things don’t go our way, we have the opportunity to learn to persevere. Thomas Edison quipped, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” When things don’t work after repeated attempts and we fail, we are faced with the question, “Now what?” No matter how you define failure, I urge you accept that your child will fail from time to time and that opportunities to become stronger can come from that.

If you believe that your child should be shielded from experiencing failure, you might consider some philosophical adjustments of your own. Think about this: if you are interested in shielding your child from failure, then you are interested in ensuring success for your child. The only way to ensure success for your child is to either (1) avoid having your child interact act with others who might see one another as competitors or (2) taking action to eliminate other children from interacting with your child in the event that your child is perceived as less-than-the-best. You either avoid challenging efforts or you eliminate the competition.

Failure is perceived differently by each of us and its meaning can morph depending on the situation. Take some time to explore your own belief surrounding what failure means to you. Is failure falling short of someone else’s expectations? Is it what results from not winning? How often do you perceive interactions with others as competitions?

When I was growing up, I would see others who, in my mind, had it better than I did. My uncle would tell me, “No one gets a full deck. Everyone has at least one card held back.” A “full deck”, a reference to a deck of cards, is having it all, so his advice reminded me that we all have a deficiency of some kind or are lacking something. I came to believe that my uncle was right. Be mindful that everyone has some challenge in their lives, even if we don’t see it. No one, including us and our child, is perfect or has the perfect life.

All parents want the best for their child. A child might even get through 4th or even 5th grade believing they are invincible because their parents have protected them from failure. Or if failure occurs, then a soft cushion of excuse-making has been provided to them. They grow up unaccustomed to the temporary disappointment that comes with falling short. But make no mistake: a reality check awaits all of us.

This rude awakening often occurs in middle school when other never-failed kids come together from different elementary schools and cross paths. When new kids are blended in 6th grade at a middle school, it might be a brainiac from a different elementary school or a kid who physically develops earlier than most, or a classmate who truly plays the clarinet like a professional musician. The reality check? You’re not as great as you and your parents thought you were and there are other kids who are better than you. In this disappointment lies a growth opportunity for you and your child.

Both of you can go through this process of reassessment together, finding a way to evolve and adjust.

The truths:

  • No one is good at everything.

  • Try to see imperfection as a growth opportunity.

  • The humility that results from this realization is healthy and creates balance in our personalities, helping us to be kinder to others.

  • When we face greater challenges, we can expect to fail more often.

©️Copyright by David Samore. Excerpts in part or whole may not be used without the expressed permission of David Samore.

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