If we think about what qualities we want our children to have as adults, most of us would put this quality at the top of the list-the ability to hold fast and steady during troubling times. We want our children to grow to be resilient in the face of adversity. By knowing how to navigate hardship without being bitter, by proactively addressing challenges, and by courageously confronting obstacles, children become equipped to dive deep into life’s gifts, enjoying their lives in the fullest possible ways-even during the inevitable times of suffering.
During the eighteen-year parenting journey, we have many opportunities to help make all this possible for our children. The beauty of the design of the parent-child bond is that it is a natural way to build our children’s capacity for resilience, meet the needs of their growing brains, and instill in them resiliency skills that they will take with them into all aspects of their adult lives.
Resiliency skills, such as the courage to face fears or the ability to self-reliant, develop readily in the living system of the human being that grows up with the attribute of resilience. Resiliency skills give access to the inherent resiliency within, and can provide the means for enhanced development. But a learned skill is not likely to transform a non-resilient personality structure into a capacity for resilience. The capacity for resilience is a foundation for learning and a person brings that capacity into the learning process. An non-resilient personality, then, will do something different with the resilience skills than a resilient personally structure will. Put simply: Parents build resilience when meeting children’s cognitive, emotional, and social development. All resiliency skills stem from that.
The last few decades of the research on self-esteem give us a good comparison model. The need for feeling good about self was addressed by increasing children’s and teen’s “self-esteem activities.” But try as they might, parents and teachers couldn’t impose self-esteem…over the years we have learned that self-esteem, well…it must come from the self to make a difference. We can catalyze it by what we do or don’t do; we can provide an environment for children to understand themselves. But we can’t impose it. In fact, research shows that many times youth who are aggressive and violent tend to think themselves as superior. They feel great about themselves!
We cannot short-change the process of growth for teens and adolescents to discover their skills and to learn new ones that support their self-understanding. By allowing and nurturing this process, self-esteem emerges as a natural outgrowth.
Five Important Areas to Develop the Capacity for Resilience
Children have needs to be met. When those needs are met, they grow and thrive just like a healthy garden when it receives what it needs. And that means, like plants, children become more hardy and equipped to weather the storms when they have their growth needs met. Parents, like master gardeners, provide the components for children to flourish. In effect, resiliency skills are the flowers that pollinate further growth. The capacity for resilience is the stem that supports the flowers.
Autonomy, Social Competence, and a Positive, can-do attitude are three critical attributes to developing resiliency capacities.
Children who understand who they are and what they are capable of possess a sense of self that no one take away from them. Since a consumer-driven culture with its emphasis on the material must always focus on the external in order for it to exist, it’s no wonder that as a society we don’t place an emphasis on the growth of an interior life. Inner qualities, like integrity, are invisible and thus can’t be seen or valued as significant. Therefore, parents must be quite intentional in creating home and local community environments that allow children and teens access to their inner terrain. By encouraging children and teens to develop a relationship to self, we support the growth of their autonomy.
A sense of autonomy would include a sense of self as a learner-a person capable of growing and becoming more, willingly embracing opportunities, possibilities, and continued growth. A sobering statistic can give us pause about the way our youth think of themselves as capable learners: Every nine seconds, a student drops out of school in America. The most recent national statistics peg the national high school graduation rate at only 69.9 percent.
If we want to raise children with character, it’s important to remember that virtues, such as honesty, empathy, and generosity, make up the personality. They can’t be imposed or taught. Rather they are birthed inside of a person when the interior life of the person reflects those qualities.
An interior life is to our minds what an enclosed porch is to our house. It’s a place separate from, yet a part of the structure in which we live. It’s a place to meet ourselves and have a good chat. It’s a seclusion to muse and ponder. It’s a timeout where we can regroup and understand ourselves better. We enter when we wish and leave when it’s time. Hopefully, it’s a room of light; a place where we achieve clarity and purpose.
Discovering and building an inner life leads to autonomy and brings important insights for interacting healthily with others-a pre-requisite for social competence.
Empathy, communication skills, and the ability to ask for relevant help and accept it are all hallmarks of a strong character that knows how to be resilient in troubling times. The epidemic of bullying and social aggression that plagues our schools provides strong evidence indicators that many children today are growing up without an understanding of basic inter-communication skills.
Modeling and encouraging supportive friendships; teaching children how to express their feelings; listening and guiding children’s challenges with peers without imposing specific solutions; teaching children cooperation and negotiating skills-all go a long way to instilling social competence. It is important to realize that with the Vital Five™ as foundation, children and teens will have the attention processes in place, the metacognitive skills activated, and the inherent self-identity to learn all these important social skills that enable resiliency.
A Positive, Can-Do Attitude
We can’t always be happy. In fact, in the midst of our trials or others’ hardships it is not healthy to be happy. With a big movement in “positive affirmation” and “authentic happiness” currently in mainstream thought, it can seem that if we are not happy, we must be living our life wrong somehow.
The late Gerald May, a psychiatrist whose books have included Simply Sane and The Open Way, makes a thought-provoking statement about what he called, “the happiness mentality”:
“Perhaps the greatest inherent defect of the happiness mentality is that it prohibits sensitivity and responsiveness to the suffering of others. The happiness mentality maintains that one must first organize one’s own life toward the absence of discomfort. Even if a person manages to accomplish this for a brief period of time, the terrible pain in the rest of the world still exists….But the fact remains: private happiness can exist as a permanent condition in the midst of public suffering only if it is based on delusion.”
Therefore, encouraging our children to be positive doesn’t mean they will always be happy. Rather, we want them to express sad feelings for others’ hardships, while keeping an attitude of hope and possibility. Being able to do this would be the natural outcome of autonomy and social competence. Children grow in understanding others if they understand self and the limits and possibilities of their individuality in the world of peers and adult relationships. Trust of self and trust of others begins to sprout internal indicators that hope and being positive are OK-that these emotions can help an individual steer accurately on course with bumpy roads and unexpected twists and turns.
Let Our Love Guide Us
The biologist Humberto Maturano reminds us that “love is the only emotion that expands intelligence” Parental love is the constant that never changes over the years and that supports our wise choices for our children’s optimal cognitive, emotional, and social development. Our fierce love wants only the very best for our kids. Tapping into that love amid daily distractions catalyzes the energy required to parent well in this crazy culture. As we love our children, the reciprocal love they pour back to us can spur us to get through a tiring day when we feel we can’t go another step.
One effective way is to observe what we love most about our children – their great questions, the way they treat their friends or care for their pets – whatever we know to be their unique gifts. Making up a list of these can help. Then we can draw them out in daily conversations with our kids. This builds self-confidence and makes their self-respect blossom-a child who naturally respects self will have a firm foundation when adversity strikes. A bonus is that when we share in this heart-energy with children, time seems to slow down and we experience a deep, truly sacred connection with them.
When children grow up with the many gifts of sustained love and deep attention, there exists within them a strong core identity that enables them to absorb challenge and hardship without succumbing to long-term despair or emotional damage. Resilience is the natural outgrowth of developmental stamina. Our greatest tasks as parents may be to willingly accept this huge responsibility and make sure that we have the resources within ourselves to give our children the best we have, and to know that is indeed, good enough. Love does not require perfection…it requires human attention and tender care…the natural gifts we give to our children naturally each day.
Copyright, Gloria DeGaetano, 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Gerald May, M. D., Will and Spirit: A Contemplative Psychology, Harper and Row, 1983, p.253.
Humberto Maturano as quoted in Presence: Human Purpose and the Field of the Future by Peter Senge, et.al, The Society for Organizational Learning, 2003, p. 59.