When I asked my daughter, Birdy, to think of the time she was proudest of herself, she said, quickly, “The high ropes.” She meant the adventure-challenge obstacle course she did with her fifth-grade class. “I was really scared. I climbed up the ladder so slowly, and then I’d stop, and the counselor would say, ‘Can you do three more steps, Birdy?’ And I could. Plus all my classmates were cheering me on. So I kept going. It was the best feeling.”
I also pictured her at age 3, her pink-cheeked, determined face bent over the little lace-up shoes that she insisted on tying “by my own self.” And I recalled her last year, courageously bouncing back from a run-in with a middle-school bully. “A literal obstacle turned into one of the best experiences of your life,” I said, about the ropes course. She smiled and replied, “It’s true.”
Think of obstacles as opportunities. It sounds like such Pollyanna-ish advice: Forget the lemons and make lemonade! But resilience is one of the most important attitudes you can cultivate in your kids—and, while we’re at it, in yourself. It’s how you move past any challenge, whether that hurdle is a molehill (say, the vanilla scoop falling off your cone) or a mountain (serious illness or the death of a loved one).
“The ability to persist in the face of difficulty may be as essential to success as talent or intelligence,” says psychologist Lisa Damour, Ph.D., author of Untangled. The point of life isn’t waiting for it to get easier. It’s discovering that even though “grit” sounds hard—like sandpaper scraping against your thin skin—it can lead to so much joyful creativity and competence. It’s learning to pick up and move on. These are some thoughts about helping your child learn to do just that.
One of the benefits of resilience is that it helps kids cope with problems even when you’re not physically there to help, like at school. “When our kids can grapple with frustration, they’re more able to learn and easier to teach,” says teacher Jessica Lahey, author of The Gift of Failure. However, building resilience doesn’t mean toughing it out alone. “Give your children a connected life—to family, friends, a neighborhood, school, teams, clubs, a pet, nature, the world of ideas,” says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, M.D., author of The Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness. “Connection is the greatest tool we’ve got for dealing with adversity.”
In other words, let your child flounder while you stand nearby. I have learned to say “Ugh,” bearing witness as my children struggle with long division, algebra, or calculus. “That looks so hard.” I tell them, “You’re doing everything right.” I encourage, watching them struggle with relationships, sadness, and disappointment, and say honestly and supportively: “Sometimes things are just hard.”
Your goal is not to shield, solve, or fix, but to offer what experts refer to as scaffolding: making sure that the framework is in place for your child to succeed. For a little kid wanting to make a salad, this might mean providing almost literal scaffolding—a step stool, say, to get her up to counter height—in addition to teaching her how to use the salad spinner and chop a cucumber. It might mean leaving enough time for your 5-year-old to tie her own shoes so you don’t have to interfere or be late to kindergarten. “Do you want help figuring this out?” is a great question to get in the habit of asking, and you can advise kids to look in their figurative toolbox. “You have Cuisenaire rods,” you might remind your struggling subtraction student. “Could they help you solve this problem?”
You don’t want your child to see every molehill as a towering obstacle. Read TripAdvisor reviews and you’ll understand that the world is full of people lamenting their imperfect view of the ocean—while seeming to miss the fundamental point that they are on vacation in Jamaica. Setbacks don’t need to ruin your experience, and most mistakes don’t have long-term consequences. Pobody’s nerfect. When raccoons stole the marshmallows from our campsite, we watched as they pelted them down from the trees, and our initial disappointment—“Now we can’t have s’mores tonight!”—morphed into one of our family’s favorite summertime stories. Racism is a mountain. Illness and loss are mountains. Bullying is a mountain. But most problems are a clump of dirt in the road, and you can just detour around it or kick it out of your way. A friend of mine offers this example from her resilient son: “When he didn’t get accepted to his top-choice middle school, I wanted to storm the gates,” she told me. “But he quietly went to his calculator, tapped away, and said, ‘It’s okay, I only had a 12.5 percent chance of getting in.’ ” Now that’s realistic assessment.
According to psychologist Carol Dweck, Ph.D., and her now-famous mindset research, when you teach kids that intelligence is not fixed but is ever-expandable, they show greater motivation in school and get better grades and higher test scores. So give your kids information about how they’re actually neurologically and anatomically designed for success. Explain that the brain is like a muscle that gets stronger when you use it. As Lahey puts it, “The harder you work, the smarter you become.” Or, as my friend Ann’s salty seafaring dad puts it, “Smooth seas never made a skilled sailor.” Reinforce this attitude by praising your children not for being smart (a fixed state) but for working hard and sticking with it (a growth state). When I asked my son Ben to describe an example of his own resilience, he cited learning a piano score that was technically “too hard” for him.
It was not a very significant problem that Ben didn’t have a urinal in the house when he was 8—but I loved that he built one with a funnel, duct tape, and some PVC pipe that drained right into the toilet. And years later, during a torrential spring, this was the same kid who helped us figure out how to channel a foot of water out of our f looded basement. Invite your kids to imagine out-of-the-box solutions—what experts call divergent thinking—to family troubles, and creative problem-solving will become their MO. For example, if everyone wants to have fajita night and you’re out of tortillas—rather than running to the store, ask your kids to try to come up with three things they could make with what’s on hand.
However, it’s not only active problem-solving that builds resilience—it’s creativity in general. The little girl who makes up pretend-play stories on the playground may become the older girl who can come up with several solutions about how to help a friend or what to do when she’s stranded with a dead cellphone, says Dr. Damour.
Optimism is a key component of resilience, and although some kids may seem naturally sunnier than others, it’s an attitude that can be taught. Explain to your kids—as often as necessary—that it’s not what you do wrong (or what goes wrong) that matters most, it’s what you do next.
One of my oldest friends recently told me about her fifth-grader, who was embarrassed by a video that he and his friend had entered into their school film festival. “They basically just goofed off while making it and turned in a video of a bunch of boys behind a couch making stuffed animals talk in squeaky voices. When it aired, he was upset because all the other films were actually, you know, decent. I thought he would wash his hands of filmmaking forever.” She and her husband listened through the “That sucked” phase, followed by the “What next?” phase. The next year, their son regrouped with another friend and planned a really funny film that he was proud of.
Another friend told me the inspiring story of her fifth-grader, who’d longed to be chosen to represent her school in a citywide ballroom-dancing contest—and was devastated when she wasn’t. “She was terribly envious and resentful of the girls who got to live her dream of dancing onstage in a beautiful dress,” my friend said. “But she pulled herself together and went to the competition to cheer on those girls and the rest of the team.” Her daughter was truly able to appreciate her peers’ performances. This is not just optimism, of course. It’s grace.
Let your kids see you keeping calm and carrying on. Allow them to see you get a good night’s sleep, try again the next day, apologize, go for a run to sweat it off, take a class to improve yourself, make fun of your own foibles. As Lahey puts it, “Talk to your kids about how you could make amends and be better. Ask them for their advice and to participate in talking through how we fix our screw-ups.” I’ve made a point of calling my political representatives instead of complaining about policies I disagree with—and I let my kids see me be an agent of change rather than a passive kvetcher. Also, we laugh at ourselves a lot. “If you take yourself too seriously, it makes everything feel unpleasant and anxious,” says Dr. Damour. “Being playful makes the moment easier. Humor reduces stress and contributes to resilience.” When we laugh at our mistakes, dust ourselves off, and try again, we show our children how to become stronger people—and we become a little more resilient too.