Teaching Your Child to be Resilient

Passion is like the heart that focuses us on our goal. Resilience is like the blood that keeps the heart pumping. Together they make grit and after years of research, Angela Lee Duckworth has proved that people with more grit are much more likely to succeed in their life goals and be happier as a consequence.

Who wouldn’t want that for their children?

Duckworth defines grit as “passion and perseverance for very long-term goals – a goal you care about so much that it organises and gives meaning to almost everything you do. And grit is holding steadfast to that goal. Even when you fall down. Even when progress towards that goal is halting or slow. Grit is living life like it’s a marathon not a sprint.”

Resilience is the perseverance part of grit. It has been defined as “our ability to bounce back after we have struggled, faltered or failed.” It’s our capacity to not be demoralised or defined by failure, but instead to get back up, dust ourselves off, and get back on with the job of tenaciously following our dream.

The thing I found most inspiring about Duckworth’s book, Grit: Why passion and resilience are the secrets to success (which I recommend you read), is that grit can be grown. It’s not fixed, it can be developed.

So, how can we help our children become grittier? I wrote a post here about how you as a parent can help your children develop their passions. Discovering their interests, finding out what they really care about and how they love to spend their time, and helping them define their long-term life goal is the fundamental first step. Some know this instinctively; for others it takes much longer. I’m 41 and I’m still figuring this out!

But what about the resilience element of grit? What can we do to help support our children become more resilient? Less likely to quit if they have a set-back or if things get hard? And instead to learn from their failures and come back stronger. To keep on pushing to reach their goals no matter what they encounter on their way.

Here are some ideas about how to grow your child’s resilience.

A Supportive but Challenging Culture

An individual with a strong sense of self-worth is much more likely to be a resilient one, someone who can stick at something even if it’s hard, because deep down, they believe they can do it. And why do they believe that? Because someone else did too. Someone important in their formative years. Be that a family member or another wise adult with whom they have a close relationship.

Interestingly, research has shown that children raised in a supportive but challenging environment fare best. They “earned higher grades in school, were more self-reliant, suffered less from anxiety and depression, and were less likely to engage in delinquent behaviour.”

So, it’s not only important to love, respect and support your children, assigning a high value to and giving them freedom to explore their interests and passions, but you must also be demanding too. Setting limits and having high expectations that they will not give up but always do their best even if it’s tough is equally as important. Creating a home environment that is nurturing but stretching is most likely to help your children in the long term.

Spend time just chatting to your children, talk about their obsessions, be there for them with their problems, play together, praise them for their effort, celebrate growth over perfection, listen to their ideas, let them make their own decisions, allow them to make their own mistakes and rather than criticising them, show them how they can learn and grow from their failures. But also, don’t let them quit if it gets a bit hard, discuss how they could have done better, expect them to follow family rules, have high expectations for them and tell them you know they can achieve them.

I also love the idea of agreeing and clearly communicating your family’s core values, through powerful literary quotes or poems, which you could memorise together or stick up on your fridge door. Reference these quotes and keep them alive in the day to day. For example, we love the poem If, by Rudyard Kipling in our family. The children have memorised it and often quote it back to me. This section speaks best to resilience:

If you can force your heart, and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

Mentors

It’s not just parents who can have a profound impact on the lives of children. Anyone who genuinely cares about and encourages children to aim high, supporting and challenging them, can make a difference. This could be a wise teacher – someone with whom your child really connects – an older sibling, a close adult friend, a grandparent, aunt or uncle. Anyone who believes wholeheartedly in your child and who has a close enough relationship to feel comfortable challenging them, pushing them beyond their comfort zone.

Reflect on who would be a good fit for your child and don’t be afraid to ask friends for help in assisting your child in their goals (and offer to reciprocate for their children if they’d like). If you can afford to, try out different tutors and if you find one who makes your child light up when they talk about them, stick with them!

As a home educator who spends a lot of time with her children, I think it’s especially important to find such positive role models outside of the home – someone else who believes in your son or daughter. Luckily, I feel blessed to have discovered, through friends, a wise acting tutor for Bean11 and cricket teacher for Bean10. Both of these individuals have been incredibly successful in their own careers; both are gritty. And both share their stories with the Beans; stories of hard work, of practising skills over and over, of pouring their hearts and souls into their dream.

So, in this way they’re acting as powerful role models for my children to emulate. But also, and possibly more importantly, I believe they truly care about my children and want them to succeed. Whilst they’re both supportive, neither are frightened of telling the Beans where they need to improve, albeit in different ways depending on the child’s personality. My little boy for example, likes to prove someone wrong if they tell him he can’t do something, which his teacher is aware of and plays upon. My daughter is a little more sensitive, but if she’s told, “I’m giving you an awful lot to take on board here, but I know you can do it,” she most certainly will, and this is exactly how her acting teacher gets the best out of her.

Finding such powerful mentors can be life changing, so it’s worth the effort of trying out different options until you find the perfect option for your child.

Although we’ve talked about face-to-face mentors, it can also be very impactful for your child to read about (in diaries or biographies) or watch stories of gritty individuals who have shown perseverance in the face of adversity, who never gave up when chasing their life’s dream.

As an example, Bean11 recently entered a poetry recitation competition and one of the poems she chose to perform was Harriet Tubman by Eloise Greenfield. We’ve studied the inspiration that was Harriet Tubman in our history but to prepare for the competition, together we watched the new Harriet film about how she saved more than 300 slaves by leading them to freedom on the Underground Railroad. It’s a beautiful film about an incredibly gritty woman. It not only helped Bean11 bring the poem to life as she now fully comprehended the true meaning of “nineteen times she went back South to get three hundred others” but it also instilled in her (and me) the importance of tenacity and sheer bloody-mindedness when it comes to following your God-given calling.

Deliberate Practice

You can spend a long time doing something and make only marginal improvements. Angela Duckworth likens this to her regular weekly running sessions in which she sees little gains. I can see her point. A while back, I was struggling to improve my own running times, and I came to moan about it to MrJ.

His response: “Why are you doing it? Because you enjoy it, and you want to keep fit or because you want to improve your times? If it’s the former, just keep on doing what you’re doing, but you’re unlikely to get much faster. If it’s the latter, you have to put a planned strategy in place. Rather than running everything at the same pace, you need to vary your runs, with 80% of them completed in a lot slower time, at a low heart rate, to build up your endurance, and a combination of hill repeats, tempo runs, interval training and sprints for the others.” Basically, I needed to do what the psychologist Anders Ericsson calls deliberate practice.

The book explains exactly how experts practice and it’s something we can help our children apply to their own practice. “First, they set a stretch goal, zeroing in on just one narrow aspect of their overall performance. Rather than focus on what they do well, experts strive to improve specific weaknesses.” “Then, with undivided attention and great effort, experts strive to reach their stretch goal.” They seek immediate feedback on how they performed, reflect on how to improve their efforts and try again, repeating the process.

So essentially, it’s teaching children to endeavour to master things they can’t yet do, failing, carefully assessing what went wrong, and trying again. And doing this often as part of their daily rhythm.

I found this fascinating to read especially because it seems to be exactly how Bean10 practises naturally with his cricket. Rather than bowling the same tried and tested variation that he knows how to bowl, he’ll select a different one, like a leg cutter, and practise it over and over again, watching where it goes, learning from this feedback and trying to perfect it.

Consistent Follow-Through

Sometimes, in order to be successful, you’ll need to do difficult things which you might not want to do. Can children learn this skill of following-through on their commitments even if it gets tough? And what’s more, can they practise this skill in an area not directly related to their long-term goal, if, as will be the case for many children, they are yet to define their life’s ambition.

According to the research mentioned in the Grit book, the answer is a resounding yes. Various studies have showed that signing up for an extracurricular activity of any sort and importantly sticking with and progressing within this activity over a long period (rather than a little effort in lots of diverse areas) teaches children to follow-through, a skill which is a determining factor in an individual’s future success. What it does is to teach children to associate working hard with reward; that it’s worth investing your time and energy now for the promise of gaining something valuable in the long run. What’s more, all the commitment and resilience which has been developed through their chosen extracurricular can almost certainly be transferred to something else in the future.

Duckworth advocates the Hard Thing Rule, which states that everyone in the household must select one hard thing to do, and as she defines it, “something that requires daily deliberate practice.” The other rule is that you can quit but only at the end of the season or some other naturally stopping point. For their family, this involves a combination of continuing psychological research and yoga for her, running and being a real estate developer for her husband, piano and viola for the kids.

In our family, we each have yearly personal goals which are equivalent to our ‘hard things’ (see this post). Bean11’s involve acting and writing her novel; Bean10’s are primarily cricket but also guitar-playing focused, and MrJ’s and mine revolve around running and for me, redesigning this website. We also have monthly family meetings to go through our progress, a new concept and one which the kids are loving.  

Mental Flexibility and Control

Self-Talk

Our mind is a powerful tool and the ability to control our mental state can often be the difference between success or not. Our brains have a natural negativity bias, which from an evolutionary perspective has kept us safe as we focus more on the dangerous aspects of our environment. Nowadays, although we no longer need to be on high alert for dangers, this bias can cause us to focus on the negative things that happen to us, leading to negative internal self-talk, and in many cases influence the decisions we make.

Not surprisingly, the more resilient, grittier people have much more optimistic self-talk. The good news is the brain is incredibly adaptive and malleable, no matter what our age. You can in essence re-train it to think in positive, optimistic self-talk as long as you recognise the negative self-talk when it occurs and consciously change your internal message to a positive one.

For example, I’ve struggled with the “You’re not good enough” message inside my brain for years, which has held me back in trying to focus on my goals. I’m now trying to consciously change this message to “You are good enough; you can do this.” It takes about three months of brain training, but you can make the change.

So, if this is something you think your child might struggle with, talk to them, find out what their internal self-talk messages are, and challenge them to recognise any negativity and instead practise optimistic self-talk.

Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck discovered that there are two basic mindsets that shape our lives. The first type, a “fixed mindset” assumes that our intelligence, creative ability and personality are static, i.e., we have no control over them. Any failure or success achieved for people with a fixed mindset is thought to be as a consequence of any inherent underlying intelligence, which is unalterable.

People with a “growth mindset” on the other hand, believe that intelligence, creative ability and personality can change and be grown. They assume that it’s possible to become cleverer if you try hard enough, have the right support and believe you can do it. These people thrive on challenge and see failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as an opportunity to learn and grow as individuals.

So, as parents, what can we do to encourage a growth mindset in our children?

How we react to our children’s successes and failures can make a big difference. Dweck found that “children develop more of a fixed mindset when their parents react to mistakes as thought they’re harmful or problematic.” Instead, if we approach their failures as opportunities for learning, discuss what they could do differently next time and at the same time reassure them that making mistakes is an important part of the learning process, we can support their growth mindset.

Easier said than done I know. I’m sure if I was feeling fully rested, happy and calm, I would have no problem exuding this positive message. But parenthood is not like that. Feelings of tiredness and overwhelm are par for the course for a busy mum, and it’s easy to become frustrated and impatient.

So, I would say here, aim for growth over perfection. You’re not going to get it right all the time, just do your best.

How we respond to their successes is also key. Rather than focusing on celebrating their talent, praise their effort instead. For example, if we just added one word to the phrase, “This is difficult maths. Don’t worry if you can’t do it,” we would get, “This is difficult maths. Don’t worry if you can’t do it yet.” The former supports a fixed mindset, the latter a growth one. Here are some other ideas for a growth mindset:

“I have high standards because I know you can do it.”

“I believe in you. It’s difficult at the moment, but you will be able to master this with some support from Daddy.”

“Excellent work, what one thing could you have done to make it even better.”

“I love this. I can tell you’ve worked really hard on this piece of work.”

“Great work. Your writing skills have improved so much over the last few weeks with all the effort you’ve put in.”

Comfort with Change

No matter what your goal, there will inevitably come a time when something unexpected happens and you will need to readjust your plans and alter your course to cope with the change. This could be in the moment. To use an example from our lives, Bean10 could be faced with an unexpectedly good batsman, requiring him to stay calm, not get dispirited, and adapt his approach to cope with this new challenge.

Or it could be a change in the environment which affects a long-term goal. For example, a new piece of scientific research is released which shows you should be training in a different way. Or a global pandemic prevents you from going to face-to-face lessons, so you need to focus on individual training for the short term.

Resilient individuals will be much better at accepting and adapting to changing situations. How can we as parents help our children be more resilient at coping with change?

Leading by example is important here. Embracing change as a positive opportunity or adventure to be had rather than an inconvenience will help your child see it in that light too.

Discussing how to adapt their goals can be advantageous too, both in the moment and for the long-term. Endurance runners for example start races with several different goals – a stretch one, a middle one, and a “it’s all gone wrong today” goal! Teach your child to set these different goals going into an event, to prevent them from getting demoralised when they fail to reach their stretch target.

And finally, get them used to changing situations. Travel with them (abroad and at home); try new activities together; meet new people; all do something that scares you; change your normal routine; or throw the plan out the window and go do something impulsive instead!             

Tough Challenges

Facing very tough, but ultimately doable challenges can be one way of children experiencing adversity that they are able to overcome themselves. It’s the ability to control the situation that’s key here. Without the control, it becomes a traumatic and debilitating experience. But with the control, it makes them into more confident, adventurous individuals who are prepared to take risks and not be overwhelmed by helplessness in future situations.

I’m a big believer in pushing children or adults outside their comfort zone, of setting them a difficult challenge and seeing them push through and achieve things they’re really proud of. Children need to learn how to fail and get back up again; it’s a key part of developing that resilient growth mindset, one in which they believe that they have control of their environment and can make a difference. Then, when they face real tough times, they have an experience from which to draw upon. They know they can overcome the obstacles presented because they’ve done it before.

There are lots of ways of incorporating demanding but rewarding challenges into your child’s life. Outward bound type courses, such as PGL, are one such fun way. But you could also set your own family challenges. For example, last year we all walked a marathon (see this post about our endurance week) – an extremely difficult challenge and one that had Bean10 in tears towards the end, but he persevered and was so proud of himself when he reached the finishing line.

Lead by Example

As author James Baldwin once said, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”

So how can we as parents lead by example when it comes to being resilient? Here are some ideas, which also serve as a summary to this post!

  1. Set your own long-term life goals and discuss your passion for them.
  2. Let them see you working hard and demonstrate trying your best in whatever you do.
  3. Persevere when you approach difficulties and share this with your children.
  4. Find your own mentor to learn from.
  5. Do a hard thing consistently – something that requires deliberate daily practice.
  6. Celebrate growth over time rather than striving for instant perfection.
  7. Embrace failure and talk about what it’s taught you.
  8. Model a growth mindset – that you believe you can learn to do better.
  9. Discuss how you’re practising optimistic self-talk.
  10. Embrace change as an opportunity for adventure.
  11. Take part in tough challenges alongside your child and on your own.

And finally, but most importantly, pray and ask God for the courage to strengthen your resilience in following your dream and show your children the power of doing so too.


3 thoughts on “Teaching Your Child to be Resilient

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