Grit. The word brings to mind some vague recollection of the actor John Wayne or the memory of a breezy day at the beach where sand gets in your hair, shoes, and even your mouth. Yet recently the word “grit” has entered the lexicon as something desirable for children to possess, perhaps because it is tied to a character trait called resilience.
Resilience is defined by parenting experts as “the ability to bounce back from negative events” or “the attitudes and coping behaviors that allow people to manage adversity and adjust to changing life circumstances.” Resilience may also be thought of as the ability to move through hardships and continue on with life. And one thing for sure is that life will bring its share of change, unpleasantness, and challenge.
As much as parents would like to shield children from hurt, disappointment, and tragedy, it simply cannot be done. Even if you could protect them from some rough times, at some point you would not be there to take the blow in their stead. It is in your children’s best interest for you to encourage resilience.
Being resilient contributes to a more positive outlook, allowing people to feel in control of their lives and to have confidence that they can handle whatever obstacles get in their way. In addition, recent research shows that developing character traits like resilience enables children to be more successful in school and in other aspects of their lives.
In his book How Children Succeed, Paul Tough writes that it is crucial that children have a caring adult who will cultivate in them such traits and attitudes as:
All of these qualities are like threads that are interwoven, each contributing to a child’s emotional strength. Having these characteristics – regardless of IQ or innate intellect – is necessary for negotiating life’s ups-and-downs.
When children are able to “stick with it,” they experience greater achievement, which in turn bolsters self-confidence. An optimistic attitude enables children to see failures or setbacks as temporary rather than permanent, specific to the situation rather than pervasive throughout all aspects of their lives, and based on circumstances rather than on some innate character flaw they possess. As a result, they come to believe that they can handle the problems they face.
What Can Parents Do to Foster Resiliency?
Fortunately, parents can do many things to foster resilience in their children, even when their children are very young. Being a steady, supportive, and caring presence in a child’s life is one of the most powerful ways a parent can instill the qualities and traits that make a person resilient. One study in Tough’s book finds that babies and toddlers who have even one adult who is keenly sensitive to their emotional state provides a powerful buffer against stress.
The same effect is true for older children. Children who have this positive attachment are more successful at managing friendships, navigating adolescent networks and issues, graduating from high school, delaying pregnancy, staying out of jail, and, ultimately, having supportive relationships with their own children.
Even parents who did not experience a warm or supportive relationship with their own parents can learn the necessary attachment skills to help their children. This includes learning to listen to and accept their children’s feelings, spending time with their children, developing empathy for their children’s experiences, seeing their children’s strengths, supporting them in their struggles, and encouraging them in their efforts.
As children mature, parents remain important models for cultivating emotional strength that leads to the attitudes and behaviors necessary for success. The following are suggestions from The Resilient Child by Joanne Joseph:
- Model for your child that everyone makes mistakes – and mistakes are expected! Mistakes should be treated as learning opportunities, not chances to belittle or humiliate children. Try to use mistakes as problem solving opportunities with your child.
- Keep in mind your child’s temperament and developmental stage when setting goals. To encourage self-confidence, expectations need to be realistic. Praise effort – not just outcomes; they may not always succeed, but they deserve credit for their attempts.
- Help your child develop one skill or activity in which he excels. This activity should be something your child has a natural affinity for and chooses for himself. Whatever it is, the recognition from others and the feelings of accomplishment will build self-confidence and act as a buffer against life’s inevitable set-backs.
- Help your child develop other interests and hobbies that are purely for fun. She doesn’t have to excel, just enjoy the activity. These de-stressors will be invaluable when the going gets tough.
- Encourage your child to be a good friend and to think of others. This will provide smoother social interactions and pave the way for support from others when your child needs it.
- Practice with your child looking for “the silver lining” in difficult situations. By changing his perspective, he will be in a better position to evaluate options and generate additional ways to approach a situation.
- Teach your child to be responsible by assigning chores and having clear household rules. Conscientiousness is the trait that best predicts workplace success.
- Help your child develop coping skills by teaching him to manage his feelings when challenged so that he can “keep his cool” and think clearly about the problem.
- Encourage your child to have an “attitude of excellence” – to want to do better than what is merely required. This will support hard work and perseverance, two traits that are needed when facing adversity.
- Finally, provide opportunities for your child to experience small, incremental changes during calm, stress-free times to prepare him to handle more significant changes later.
All of us, parents included, need to exercise and grow the “mental muscles” of resilience. Demonstrating your own flexibility, self-control, optimism, and grit will encourage your children to become more resilient as they move through life.By Jill Bown, Certified Parenting Educator
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