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How to raise resilient children? Provide nurture, structure and latitude

December 11, 2012 - Betsy Bethel
I attended a webinar for parents at my daughter's school Monday night titled "Raising Resilient Children in Challenging Times" by Dr. Rob Evans. Evans is a former preschool and high school teacher and a psychologist who for many years served as a family therapist and now is an educational consultant.

First of all, I want to applaud Wheeling Country Day School for having these parent meetings. This is the third one I've attended, although there have been others. I find them enlightening and hope in the future we can get longer "discussion" time in smaller groups so people are more comfortable sharing their opinions and experiences. (I don't have any problem sharing in a large group, ahem. My life, as you all know, is an open book! But I imagine some might be more willing to open up in a small-group setting.)

So why did I attend this particular meeting? I was intrigued by the resiliency concept. Like you, I read the paper and hear stories about people every day — adults and children — who appear unable to cope with what life throws at them. They cave in, they give up. They kill themselves. They kill others. They abuse drugs until they are incapable of functioning. They abuse their children.

These folks, for some reason, feel the need to internalize externally driven circumstances; they buckle under the weight of the world and are simply unable to break free and move on.

Every time someone asks in my presence, "What is wrong with people today?" My answer is: "They don't know how to cope."

So this webinar on raising resilient kids resonated with me. I want my kid to be able to shoulder life's harsh realities — heartbreak, deceit, unfair treatment — without getting completely crushed.

I discovered we're not doing too badly as parents, my husband and I. We are far from textbook perfect, yes. But something Evans said toward the beginning of the webinar assuaged my guilt from the get-go. He said to put down the child-rearing advice books because all they do is contradict each other and create undue anxiety on today's parents. What!? Okaaaay. That's a tough one for me. I LOVE parenting books! A co-worker said something similar to me on Facebook the other day and I thought she was crazy. She said she doesn't read books about how to raise her kids; she just raises them. I was like, "Whoa, are you sure that's ALLOWED?" They say "there's no manual for raising kids," but there is, you know! Like tens of thousands of them!

But Evans makes a good point, and so does my co-worker. Later in the webinar, Evans expands on the advice. He says the first step to raising resilient kids (yes, I see the irony here), is to "Be your best self," and hence don't try to be something you think you're supposed to be or you're told you're supposed to be. Figure out what you're good at as a parent — write down your strengths. Then do MORE of those things. Not every parent is good at every part of child-rearing. But if you focus more on what you do well, your child will get the best of you more often than not.

For the nuts and bolts of the webinar, Evans listed three things children need to become resilient and some steps for parents toward achieving them. The three key needs, he said, are nurture, structure and latitude. Nurture is, basically, he said, being more like Mr. Rogers — loving our kids for who they are, no matter what grades they get or what difficulties they have. He said nurturing kids means applauding their efforts not just their outcomes, from potty training to learning to tie shoes to mastering multiplication.

Yes. I get it. My husband and I want our child to look at school and other challenges enthusiastically rather than being anxious about performing to everyone else's expectations. We want her to know that sometimes getting the right answer isn't as important as how you go about solving the problem. It's a paradigm shift for most families and our society as a whole, but it's one that I agree with Evans is necessary to help our children develop a sense of self-worth and stick-to-itiveness. It will enable them to put themselves out there and try new things because they know, no matter what, they are loved and are going to be OK. And if it ends up NOT OK, that's OK, too. As Evans said, we learn best from mistakes and disappointments. More about that when we get to latitude.

Structure is a key element to raising resilient kids, Evans said. The biggest challenge to structure, he said, is too much willingness on parents' part to negotiate. To sum it up, Evans said it's OK for parents say: "Because I said so!" How does this help children cope? Because when they are forced to do something they don't want to do, they are actually PRACTICING their coping skills. They can't cope if they've never had to. He told the story of an Italian mother with many children who at dinnertime would say, "Who's having lasagna, and who's going hungry?" She didn't say, "Who's having lasagna and who's having chicken tenders?" You had lasagna or nothing. And the kids dealt with it. He said his own mother, when faced with moans and groans from him and his brother, would say, "Well, you'll just have to get glad again" and then she would walk away. And eventually, they got over whatever it was they were complaining about.

I admit I negotiate with Emma way too much. When she was a toddler, I read and heard many times about the importance of giving her choices ... basically so she would have fewer tantrums. You know, it was the whole routine of "Do you want to wear the red sweater or the pink sweater?" — thereby giving her the choice and letting her feel like had some control but still getting what you, the parent, want, i.e., the kid to put on a sweater.

Unfortunately, I took it too far, for too long, and now EVERYTHING has become a negotiation. Emma thinks she can talk her way into getting anything she wants. And when she finds out she can't, she still, at age 6, throws a fit. Trying to back-pedal now is not easy, but we are heading in the right direction. Most of the time.

Last, Evans talked about the importance of giving children latitude. Most kids, he said, not all but most, are mostly resilient. "The greatest lessons come from loss, disappointment and failure," he said. Our children are not as fragile as we have been led to believe. Cut them some slack. Don't overdo it by under-doing it, though — kids still need structure. But don't hover. Don't ALWAYS do things for them they can do for themselves (I figure once in awhile is OK, like if they're sick or overtired). You're not doing them any favors by preparing the path for them rather than preparing them for the path, he added.

We are mostly good with this one. I sometimes still help Emma get dressed in the morning, which I know I shouldn't do, so I am working on that as well as encouraging her to bathe without any assistance. She is now more often than not making her own breakfast. Not having any younger siblings, Emma hasn't been required to fend for herself too much because we are dealing with a nursing baby or younger sibling. That's my excuse, anyway! I appreciated this reminder from Evans that if I want her to be able to bounce back from a tough situation, she needs to have been given a chance to bounce in the first place!

The last thing Evans talked about was his prescription for parents: A grandparent pill. Take 36 hours and act like your child's grandparent. You take a step back, he said, from the minute-by-minute worries of whether or not he ate a balanced meal or whether his hair is brushed and you simply enjoy your child's company. Channel a little bit of Mr. Rogers, if you will.

For me, the webinar helped bring into focus three key action areas: Find your strong points and concentrate on them, curb the negotiations, and stop doing things for her that she can do herself. Most children are already pretty resilient, but I think if every parent just takes a few of these things into consideration, we may be on our way to raising another "greatest generation" of can-do kids.


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