Resilience. Grit. Pluckiness. Whatever you want to call it, it is what picks us up when we feel we cannot move, it is the ability to keep going despite tragedy. How do we teach resilience to kids? Is it possible?
As I write this, much of my adopted home state of California burns. Apparently, the combination of faster-than-average Santa Ana winds, recent scorching summer, and wet winter in 2016 has led to a state that can go up like a tinderbox. Last month following the devastating fires in Sonoma and Santa Rosa, I watched anxiously as people walked back to the areas where their homes stood. They surveyed the damage, tried to collect what they could. How do you recover from that?
I have long been a lover of post-apocalyptic fiction. I just prefer it to stay fiction. Whenever I read about zombies overrunning Earth or a post-nuclear wasteland, I wonder: how would I respond? For many years, my goal was to die quickly but now that I have my daughter, things have changed. Life is too fragile.
So why do some children recover from tragedies, and go on to lead productive and incredible lives? Why do some children (and adults, honestly) thrive when others do not?
What is resilience?
When I think of resilience, I think of the character Poppy from Trolls. I know, I know. Clearly, I have not seen a non-animated movie in the last three years. Poppy, though, despite her unflagging optimism, always “gets back up again.” When other trolls turn to flee, Poppy devises a strategy to rescue her friends and ultimately save all the trolls.
According to the Educational Resources Information Center, resilience is “a process of successful adaptation and transformation despite risk and adversity.” The research indicates that most children are born with the capacity for resilience. Those that are successful translate this into social competence and a sense of autonomy.
Resilient children face adversity. They maintain the ability, though, to ignore the negativity and develop strategies to overcome obstacles.
I wish I had more of that. Are you born with resilience or can we nurture it?
Consistently, research indicates that having at least one role model or caring relationship fosters resilience and autonomy. Just one person to say, “Hey I know you’re having a rough day, but you’re doing a good job.” Perhaps it could be a parent, a grandparent, a friend’s parent. You just need one.
I think often of my friends who teach school. Perhaps they serve as this one caring relationship, someone who can offer some stability to help a child build their own confidence.
Tracy Kidder wrote, “For children who are used to thinking of themselves as stupid or not worth talking to…a good teacher can provide an astonishing revelation. A good teacher can give a child at least a chance to feel, She thinks I’m worth something; maybe I am’.”
I know many such teachers.
If schools and other programs establish high expectations and provide support to help children achieve, this too fosters resilience and autonomy. Programs need to provide some diversity and a sense of inclusion. I feel like this makes sense. When something bad happens to you, you feel isolated, different. Having an atmosphere where you can express yourself and be accepted for being your own person helps develop your confidence. From there you can develop resilience.
“You can’t win if you don’t play.” I think that may have been a Lottery commercial, but I think it still holds true. The second side of that, though, is you need to have the chance to get in the game. If you have an opportunity to lead and learn responsibility, chances are, you will learn it. I think part of participation also implies an open dialogue. If the leaders/teachers/parents dictate whatever they want, the child can feel oppressed. If they are given an opportunity to question, help with lesson planning or meal preparation, they learn they have a voice.
My daughter talks a lot and has since she was 18 months old. She has a constant external monologue, much of which is quite funny. I’ve asked my mother about it, and my mother told me, “She speaks because no one has ever told her to shut up.” I don’t want my daughter to stop talking–I enjoy what she says and I encourage her to converse with me. I guess I’m hoping that plays a part in her confidence and ability to develop resilience.
“Now nothing’s impossible, I’ve found for when my chin is on the ground,
I pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.”–from “Pick Yourself Up” by Jerome Kern.
Now, I am sure none of my friends would ever call me a cockeyed optimist but apparently having a positive outlook does help breed resilience. I think of a Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood episode, where Daniel goes to pick out his birthday cake. He gets so excited about it, but when he brings it home, he realized the cake has been smashed. His parents say, “when something seems bad, turn it around, and find something good.”
Ha! I knew TV could actually teach my two-year-old something.
I think having a positive outlook can help with a lot of setbacks and disappointments, unrelated to birthday cake mishaps. For instance, when I did not get a part I wanted in the school play, I was disappointed. I tried, though, to turn it into something better. When I failed a test, I vowed to work harder next time. Positivity helps me, at least, bounce back when bad things happen.
By this, I mean any spirituality: feeling connected to nature, meditation, yoga, organized religion, whatever your spiritual tonic. I have found this in my work as well, that spiritual people do tend to rebound well. I think this relates to the idea of caring relationships and connectedness. If you feel a bond to something or someone that brings you inner peace, it helps you remember your own self. It helps build resilience.
Books to Help Teach Resilience
The Hugging Tree by Jill Neimark. The Goodreads.com description sells it well: “A little tree ends up on a cliff and must grow there. She finds comfort in the sea and the moon, support from loons, and connection and warmth from the people sitting in her shade. The Hugging Tree is a poetic and peaceful story that aims to teach children about hope and resilience. Rather than a lonely tree on a lonely cliff, the tree represents community and a place to get in touch with inner hopes and dreams.”
Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. A little girl loves her name, until the other kids at school tease her for it. Chrysanthemum takes comfort from her loving parents and develops a relationship with a teacher at school who helps her develop self-esteem.
The Name of the Tree: A Bantu Tale Retold by Celia Barker Lottridge. A drought has spread across the land, and the only hope is a tree with colorful fruit. To survive, they have to work together. The hero is not the most cunning or the strongest but the one that tries the hardest.
If you also find yourself Googling things frantically at 2 AM, let me save you some time.
“Fostering Resilience in Children” by ERIC Digest, www.eric.ed.gov
“The Resilient Child” from Psychology Today
“Children’s Storybooks that Promote Resilience” by Reaching In, Reaching Out
“How to Build Resilience in Midlife” at New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope, 7/25/2017. Because my kid is more resilient than I am.
“How People Learn to Become Resilient” by Maria Konnikova, New Yorker, 2/11/2016.
I wish I could say that I know that my daughter will be resilient. Frankly, I wish I could wrap her in a bubble and protect her from all of life’s woes. Unfortunately, though, I know how unrealistic that is. No matter how hard we all work as parents, disappointment can be a part of life. Whether it is a smashed birthday cake, a bully, or a wildfire, none of us can run forever from disappointment and sorrow. I think in terms of teaching her to be a traveler, a citizen of the world, resilience is key. Things go wrong, it is a part of life. It is how we deal with disappointment and heartache that defines us.
Is it enough just to teach our kids how to be brave? Will that help them to rebound, to adapt? I think courage certainly plays a role, as does gratitude and basic compassion. Some of these attributes develop over time, some are ingrained. If I could, though, I would wish resilience for my girl. I wish I had more myself that I could give her.
What about you? I would love to hear your thoughts on resilience in kids, how best to teach them, ideas you have. Leave a comment below or e-mail me so we can share the story.