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As the former dean of freshmen at Stanford University, Julie Lythcott-Haims knows how important qualities like tenacity and toughness are for young adults’ development. And as a parent, she knows how difficult it can be to instill those qualities in kids. The author of the New York Times best seller How to Raise an Adult, Lythcott-Haims believes raising resilient kids means allowing them to fall and pick themselves back up—and resisting the urge to fix their problems for them.
Like it or not, unwanted, disappointing, and painful things happen in the normal course of life, starting in childhood. In our hearts, we want to shield our kids from all of these things. In reality, we can’t. We need to help them learn to cope with difficulties and keep going; in other words, help them become resilient. Resilience isn’t just useful in the moment—it’s the gift that keeps on giving. The more resilient your kid becomes, the better equipped they’ll be to handle the next thing that happens. (And yes, the next thing will happen.)
One reason kids are less resilient today is that, acting with the best of intentions, we parents often try to prevent them from experiencing any hardship. So teaching resilience starts with getting out of our kids’ way. Take learning to walk, for example. When a kid falls down we don’t say, “Oh, honey, let’s never let that happen again. We’ll hold you by the hand so you never fall.” Instead, we clap, nod encouragingly, and say, “Try again. You can do it.” Letting your kid experience small setbacks makes them stronger and more capable.
Building resilience is a four-step cycle. First you experience a setback. Then you notice and name what you’re feeling—rejection, disappointment, embarrassment, shame, confusion, and the like. Then you ask yourself what you’ve learned and what you might do differently if it happened again. Finally you plan your next step and move on. Through this process, you accept that struggle is a normal part of the human experience and realize that you can learn from it.
Chores—whether cleaning up, setting the table, or something else entirely—build a work ethic. They teach children that it takes a lot of effort from all members of the family to make a home function. When they go out into the real world, they’ll know how to roll up their sleeves and pitch in instead of waiting to be served.
I call “failure” one of life’s beautiful f-words—along with “flail,” “fumble,” “flounder,” and “fall.” You have to encounter these things over the course of your life to learn how to bounce back. The more you experience them, the more resilient you’ll be when bigger challenges arise.
Risk taking is how we learn and grow. But it’s scary to take risks because we might fail or get hurt. You can be a role model to help your kids confront this fear. Talk with them about the risks you’ve taken, why you took them, and what happened. When you talk openly about the setbacks you experienced, you show kids that failure is part of the natural course of life. You normalize struggle, making it safer for them to try, fail, and try again.
If you handle every challenge for your kids, you end up depriving them of the very life experiences that make them resilient. Sometimes as parents we have to silently say to ourselves, “Yeah, that’s going to be painful, but I’m glad they’ll have the opportunity to experience it. They’ll be tougher next time.” Allowing children to have these experiences is the only way to ensure they develop the skills they need to feel competent, strong, and resilient when things go wrong.
Take a step back when there’s a problem. For example, your child may leave their backpack at school or forget what their homework assignment is. The overinvolved parent’s instinct is to go get the backpack or email the teacher to see what the assignment is. But making your kid handle their problems will help them build the skills they need to remember those things the next time around. Empathize with your kid by saying, “Oh no, that’s frustrating.” Then ask with a smile, “How do you think you’re going to handle it, honey?” That crucial question signals that you believe they can handle it themselves. As parents, we have to delight in our children’s growing skill set and stand back so they can build it.
Option B is an acknowledgment that life can go awry, but that doesn’t mean life is over. We can persevere and ultimately embrace a new way of being: Option B.
Pediatrician Kenneth Ginsburg identifies the qualities that help kids build strength and provides advice for parents to cultivate resilience.
Developmental psychologist Carol Dweck explains how kids who embrace effort and difficulty learn to take on challenges. They use a growth mindset—the idea that we can grow our brain’s capacity to learn and to solve problems. Learn about this influential field of psychology, and the power of believing that you can improve.