"What if no one comes to my party?" my daughter Lily asked me shortly before her fourth birthday. "I'll be so sad."
My stomach turned to ice. I wished I could promise this wouldn't happen, but Lily was a summer baby, and it was entirely possible that none of the invited friends would be in town.
I wanted her to believe that she'd be okay, even if no one came to her party, but even more than that, I wanted her to be okay. How could I help her gain the confidence to face a setback and come through it stronger than ever? The worst thing that had happened to her in her young life was being served spinach, not exactly a real hardship -- no matter what she says.
Then I recalled an article I'd read in the New York Times entitled "The Family Stories That Bind Us." In it, the author, Bruce Feiler, explained new research showing that the most self-confident kids have a strong "intergenerational self." Teaching resilience, he wrote, can be as simple as telling family stories.
Could this really be the case? Deciding it was worth a try, I started to weave family lore into our conversations. When we drove by the local college, I pointed out the spot where I first saw her dad, Dan. I showed her the hospital where her baby sister, Evelyn, was born, and often recounted the story of Lily's birth in New Orleans.
But I wondered if I needed to do more than just talk about our family. Four-year-olds aren't known for their great listening skills, so who knew how much she was really absorbing? The next step was to turn the stories into an art project.
I bought a sheet of poster board, glue, and an assortment of stickers and trinkets. Then I gathered family photos, spread everything on the floor, and sketched a large tree onto the poster board.
"This is the Doiron Family Tree," I told Lily. I explained that it would show how our family members are connected. At the very top, I put stickers depicting France, Canada, and Louisiana. We talked about how the Doirons had emigrated from France to Canada to New Orleans. We talked about Hurricane Katrina, how the water had filled her grandmother Mawmaw's house, and the family had rebuilt it. We attached Mawmaw's photo, a sticker of a house, and a Mardi Gras mask.
We filled the rest of the tree with pictures of grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins and added stickers for key events. On the lowest branch, we placed photos of Lily and Evelyn, then we hung the tree in Lily's room.
When her birthday came, plenty of friends were there to celebrate it, to the relief of both of us. As happy as I am to teach resilience, I'm not all that eager to test it. I know the tests will come soon enough, whether we welcome them or not.
Evelyn is learning to crawl now, and Lily takes her big sister duties very seriously. "Come on, you can do it," I hear her say. "You're a Doiron, and Doirons can do anything." I know she is parroting something I have said over and over, but I also know she means every word. Confidence? She has it, and she's passing it on.
Originally published in the November 2013 issue of FamilyFun magazine