Raising Resilient Kids: How Teach Them to Thrive and Flourish in the Real World
“I can’t do it,” my five year old says.
We’re playing a flashcard game as part of this month’s parenting challenge and I’m teaching her to read simple words. Get a word right, she gets a point. Get a word wrong, Mommy gets a point.
‘Quit saying that’, I think to myself. I’m at a loss for what else to tell little miss negative nelly, and I’m getting frustrated.
“New rule,” I finally say. “If you say ‘I can’t’, I get an automatic point, because I know that you can. So what should you say instead?”
“I will say I can do it. I just have to try,” she says, smiling.
“That sounds like a great idea. And it’s always okay to ask for help if you don’t know the answer.”
I enjoy the small victory and return to the game.
Why am I doing this? Why teach my daughter to read? She’s five for crying out loud!
For starters, I think that five year olds are totally capable of reading. They’re capable of doing a lot of things, and I want to see how far she can go.
Technically, I could sit her down for a few hours each day and force her to rifle through flashcards and workbooks. That’ll get her reading. But that’s not the point of this exercise.
This isn’t about hacking my kids so they can grow up to be the next Olympic champion or Pulitzer Prize winner. They don’t have to declare their life purpose before the third grade or read Proust or master the violin or attend Harvard. Heck, they don’t even have to go to college if they don’t want to.
This is about teaching them something that they can carry with them into adulthood – the idea that with effort and commitment, they can do whatever they want. Hard things. Impossible things Crazy things. It’s all theirs for the taking.
So I’m trying to get to the bottom of how I can set high standards for my kids and teach and motivate them to reach their goals without turning into an over involved helicopter parent.
If you want specific ideas on things to say to your kids, videos to show them or books to read, click here for a bonus free download.
Kids Need to Build Their Character Toolbox
Readers of this blog will know that I’ve spent a considerable amount of time researching the habits and qualities of successful people, and how it’s strength of character, more so than talents or smarts that separates the people who achieve their goals from the ones who do not.
So it’s fitting for me to start with one of my favorite topics, mental toughness.
Build a strong mind – a growing and resilient mind – and the confidence, motivation, academic success, and curiosity will follow.
The good news is that we can learn and practice and teach all these things.
Carol Dweck in her wonderful book Mindset, The New Psychology of Success, describes two mindsets that shape our lives:
- Fixed Mindset: Our qualities are carved in stone (i.e. I’m stupid, I’m terrible at math)
- The Growth Mindset: The hand we are dealt with is a starting point and we can all change and grow with effort, application and experience (I didn’t work that hard, I just haven’t figured it out – yet)
Dweck believes that “the view you adopt for yourself profoundly affects the way you live your life. It can determine whether you become the person you want to be and whether you accomplish the things you value.”
She gives an example of of Marva Collins, a growth mindset teacher who did some incredible things with her students:
Marva Collins took inner city Chicago kids who had failed in the public schools and treated them like geniuses. Many of them had been labeled “learning disabled”, “retarded”, or emotionally disturbed.” Virtually all of them were apathetic. No light in the eyes, no hope in the face. Collins’ second grade public school class started out with the lowest level reader there was. By June, they reached the middle of the fifth grade reader, studying Aristotle, Aesop, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, Poe, Frost and Dickinson along the way.
Unlike Collins’s school, the Julliard School of music accepts only the most talented students in the world. You would think the idea would be you’re all talented, let’s get down to learning. But if anything, the idea of talent and genius looms even larger there.
Understanding fixed vs. growth mindsets is important because it’s our job as parents to prepare our kids for the real world. In the real world, there is failure, adversity, challenges to face and hills to climb. Psychologist Dan Griffin points out in his article on teaching kids to tune into their own motivation that:
If we think about our own lives… we can very often trace significant, unexpected growth in our adult lives as emerging out of disappointments and setbacks. We are denied admittance to what seems like the ticket to our early dream, only to discover our calling, more subtle but more configured to our values and strengths.
That’s why, according to Paul Tough, author of How Children Succeed:
The best way for a young person to build character is for him to attempt something where there is a real and serious possibility of failure. In a high risk endeavor, whether it’s in business or athletics or the arts, you are more likely to experience colossal defeat than in a low risk one – but you’re also more likely to achieve real and original success.
In other words, it’s from the experience of challenging ourselves and taking risks that we grow, learn, and become more resilient.
This is a tough one for us parents because there are so many, often conflicting things at play here. We want to raise confident and independent kids who excel in sports and academics and arts, but we also want to protect them from disappointment, from making the mistakes we made and regrets we live with. Hence the tendency to shower them with praise, bail them out of tough situations, and push them to work harder or pursue certain subjects.
The problem, according to Carol Dweck, is that kids, especially those with a fixed mindset, learn to become fearful of not living up to the expectations of their parents or teachers. They either stop challenging themselves, or go into overdrive trying to prove their abilities. They fall into a cycle of expectation and judgement and approval which, without the right belief system, can develop into issues of self worth, stress, cheating, dishonesty, and in some cases where helicopter parenting is involved, depression.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that parents should lower their standards – they just have to give kids room to grow and the means to get there. And part of that is teaching them to coexist with and learn from failure.
Dan Griffin’s analogy of the two possible roles that parents can play – cheerleader or coach – sums it up nicely:
The cheerleader’s main goal is to keep the spirits up. The cheerleader has learned to “praise the effort, not the outcome” so mom and dad ignore the score and pass out prizes to all. The coach’s main job, on the other hand, is to build character. Built into that lesson is an assumption of challenge and possible, eventual failure.
One never knows which “failure” will be the tipping point for an adolescent toward more effort, self-reflection, assuming responsibility, in a word, discovering inner motivation.
Practical Tips for Parents
I’m like many other parents out there. I want my kids to have the intrinsic motivation and volition (the willpower and self control) to accomplish the things that they attempt.
If parents want to give their children a gift, the best thing they can do is to teach their children to love challenges, be intrigued by mistakes, enjoy effort, and keep on learning. – Carol Dweck
But I find a lot of the research I’m reading counterintuitive and scary. As I work through activities like the flashcard game (which, for the record, she very much enjoys), it’s hard for me to know when and how to give praise, and when and how to be firm and even critical. I don’t know if my daughter picks up on my frustrations or uncertainties, and to what extent she absorbs the things I say.
Honestly, I’m making it all up as I go along (see? I’m learning too!) and have found a few principles particularly helpful as I work my way through this process of motivating my kids, cultivating a growth mindset, and building character.
Every word we say sends a message
Kids pick up on everything from the words we say and the facial expressions we use, to the conversations we have and tones of our voices. The importance of being intentional with our words is something we all know as parents, but it’s not so easy to consistently put into practice.
Think about the following:
- How do you use praise? Do you praise intelligence or effort?
- Do you label your kids (i.e. he’s the athlete, she’s the artist)?
- How do you react when they mess up? Do you judge and punish or do you use every day moments as an opportunity to think and learn?
- What kind of expectations do you set and how do you express it? Do you ask for full commitment and effort?
The cultivation of a growth mindset needs to be hammered into their malleable little brains, day in and day out. We have to use praise intelligently and focus on effort, hard work, and the process, and not intelligence or talent.
At the same time, we have to be honest (and sympathetic) about failure and what it takes to succeed, versus giving false or unrealistic praise. Here’s what one father said to his daughter who didn’t win any ribbons at a gymnastics competition:
I know how you feel. It’s so disappointing to have your hopes up and to perform your best but to not win. But you know, you haven’t really earned it. There were many girls out there who’ve been in gymnastics longer than you and who’ve worked a lot harder than you. If this is something you really want, then it’s something you’ll really have to work for.
And let’s not forget about Marva Collins, because I love what she tells her students at the beginning of each year:
I know most of you can’t spell your name. You don’t know the alphabet, you don’t know how to read, you don’t know homonyms or how to syllabicate. I promise you that you will. None of you has ever failed. School may have failed you. Well, goodbye to failure, children. Welcome to success. You will read hard books and understand what you read. You will write every day… But you must help me to help you. If you don’t give anything, don’t expect anything. Success is not coming to you, you must come to it.
At the end of the day, we want or kids to keep trying.
Lead by example
This goes without saying, but we can’t just talk the talk. We have to walk the walk.
If we want to teach our kids the importance of focus and concentration, we have to get rid of the distractions for ourselves. We have to turn off the TV and releases ourselves from our iPhone addictions.
If we want our kids to be readers and learners, we have to be readers and learners ourselves. Same goes for our eating and exercise habits, how we resolve conflict with our spouses, and treat our family members and talk about our friends and coworkers.
We are the most important role models for our kids, and we must take that role seriously.
Encourage make believe and free play
One of the more successful experimental educational programs is called Tools of the Mind, an early childhood program that teaches kids self regulation and cognitive control. Through playful learning, it reinforces the ability to control impulses and actions, organize thoughts, and focus on an activity for a sustained period of time without getting distracted (and without having to resort to bribery). These methodologies, according to Tools, effectively translates into academic and behavioral success.
After just three months of a pilot project, Tools teachers in New Mexico went from averaging forty reported classroom incidents a month to zero. And Tools kids don’t distracted easily. – Po Bronson, Nurtureshock
Can you imagine? A self-regulated child who can focus, listen to instructions, and control her emotions? Sign me up!
Learning this philosophy on playful learning made me feel better about the fact that my girls love to watch these videos of kids playing with toys on YouTube. I always found them annoying, but I realize now how much they’ve influenced the way they play – more effective than any Sofia the First or Littlest Pet Shop show would. Even my two year old can role play with her dolls and act out scenes with different characters complete with voices, characters and props.
This is exactly what make believe play is all about – strengthening executive function (think self regulation, decision making, rule making, communication etc.) or, as Tools of the Mind calls it, “mature, multidimensional, sustained play.” Po Bronson describes this in more detail in NutureShock:
When you ask a child to copy something on the board the teacher has written, he might think ‘I can’t write as good as the teacher,’ so then he doesn’t want to do it. But hand a notepad to the child who is pretending to be a waiter in a pizza parlor. Johnny ordered cheese pizza, you ordered pepperoni. They don’t know if they can write it or not – they just know that they have to do something to remember the pizza orders. They end up doing more writing than if you asked them to write a story.
The Tools program takes it a step further by encouraging their kids to make written “play plans”, which forces kids to commit to their roles for as long as an hour, and focus on the activity. “By acting roles they’ve adopted in their play plans,” Bronson says, “kids are thoroughly in the moment,” and subsequently not distracted.
Reinforce good habits
As much as we want to foster play, experiences and exploration, habits rule our lives. We have to set rules for our kids and implement some basic routines – not just around things like sleep, meals, exercise and homework, but how we behave:
- In the mornings, we make our bed
- No name calling in the house
- We eat a healthy breakfast every morning and dinner as a family 5 nights a week
- No devices in bedrooms
Solid habits teach self discipline, reinforce motivation and ultimately, turn into healthy automatic responses.
And BAM, just like that, we have super kids. Just kidding. Like anything, this is a process.
If you want specific ideas on things to say to your kids, videos to show them or books to read, click here for a free download.