How to Raise a Child Who Is Resilient
Resilience—not letting setbacks destroy you, learning from them, trying again—is one of life’s great skills. This is how you teach it.
It was the eve of the sixth-grade science fair. Having dawdled until the deadline, my son, Ethan, had whipped together a seriously lame experiment: measuring the weight of a banana before and after it dried out. Every maternal atom in me thrummed with ideas for making “Banana Water” less bad. “How about you test several different fruits and compare? Or maybe a nice avocado?” I enthused. Ethan was unmoved: “Just bananas. It’s easier.” I watched him blow-dry the lone browning fruit and shrugged. On science fair night, at tables nearby, atoms were being split, obscure diseases cured. Ethan, looking uncomfortable under the glaring gymnasium lights, got only the thinnest, most polite grandparent traffic and—surprise!—earned a deservedly lackluster grade. “Maybe some grapes would have helped,” he admitted on the subdued car ride home.
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I now realize Ethan got to experience something that is increasingly rare for kids: what it’s like to just plain screw up. Our youngsters have been called a “failure-deprived generation”—famously blamed on helicopter parents, lawn-mower parents, snowplow parents, and other heavy-machinery types who swoop in to bawl out coaches and wheedle better grades. Jessica Lahey, the author of The Gift of Failure ($5; amazon.com), has been an English teacher for 20 years and has watched her students become increasingly uncomfortable with taking risks. Lahey says this avoidance can be fostered by parents with even the best intentions: “It’s painful to watch your child stumble. You want to show your love by making a problem instantly better. But we need to look beyond the immediate emergency and take a longer view: ‘How can this help my kid grow from life’s many setbacks while I’m here to help?’”
In fact, failing is essential to a well-lived life, note a growing number of education leaders. Mistakes reside in a great neighborhood—on the corner of Learning and Pushing One’s Limits. Being comfortable faltering and getting back up are essential to building resilience. “We don’t rejoice in easy victories. If you recover from failure, you learn something about yourself. You are tougher than you thought. Or more hardworking. That’s how confidence is built,” says Rachel Simmons, the author of Enough as She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Healthy, Happy, and Fulfilling Lives ($16; amazon.com).
As a leadership development specialist at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, Simmons helped develop Failing Well, a workshop series that included having professors and students publicly air their rejection letters and biggest screwups. Last year, Columbia University’s Teachers College established the Education for Persistence and Innovation Center, dedicated to studying the role of failure in learning and innovation. A 2016 study by the center’s director, Xiaodong Lin-Siegler, PhD, showed that students in low-income high schools who learned about the struggles and failed experiments of scientists like Marie Curie saw their own science grades improve. They see that intelligence is not something you are born with but something you gain through effort and, yes, error. “Students realize that success requires a journey with failures along the way,” says Lin-Siegler.
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Of course, you don’t want to just throw your kid to the wolves. (“Good luck with choosing a college! Bye!”) Experts say the sweet spot of failure often lies just outside children’s comfort zones, where they have the chance to learn something that will serve them well in the future—running for a student council seat but losing, for example. “Emphasize to them that failures are proof you are pushing yourself to do something hard. If you are not making mistakes, you are probably not challenging yourself,” says Amy Morin, a psychotherapist and the author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do ($12; amazon.com).
Ready to raise your own little failures? Here’s where to begin.
Allow your kids the chance to (deep breath) fail naturally. Start young, when the stakes are low: Let your 3-year-old lose to you at Candy Land, suggests Stephanie O’Leary, PsyD, a clinical psychologist and the author of Parenting in the Real World ($10; amazon.com). “She might have a meltdown, but don’t lose your cool. Say, ‘I know this is hard.’ If she sees her mom tolerating her distress, she will realize it is not the end of the world.” For school-age kids, sports offer excellent lessons in taking your lumps (sometimes literally) and trying another day. Lahey’s son was tripped at the start of a cross-country meet. “If I had been there, I couldn’t have resisted coming to his rescue and asking for a do-over,” she says. “Instead, his teammates ran beside him, he had a personal best, and he beat the kid who fouled him. My son now counts that as one of the best running days he ever had.”
Stepping back may mean examining your own attitudes, says Morin. “You feel guilty if you don’t run to school with the left-behind soccer gear. You may see your child’s failures as a reflection of your parenting. To cool down, it can help to write a list: What are three things my child could learn from this? Seeing the logic on paper can bring you back to reality.”
“We don’t rejoice in easy victories. If you recover from failure, you learn something about yourself. You are tougher than you thought. That’s how confidence is built.”
However much it helps them grow, messing up hurts. Validate their discomfort, say experts. “We need to sit with them with those difficult emotions. Having parents take their feelings seriously is gold for kids—it is often what they want most. And they will learn that bad feelings are not going to destroy you,” says Simmons. Use active listening by repeating the gist of what they are saying: “Wow, that is rough! You must feel so angry right now.” And encourage them to practice self-compassion—being kind to themselves when they falter. “If [name a best friend] were feeling bad, what would you say to them right now?” you can ask. When you help them through the emotional sting, they feel capable of trying again.
Your kids take their cues about what to think about failure from you, says Kyla Haimovitz, PhD, a psychology researcher at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied how parents react to kids’ failure. “Your reaction has a huge impact on your kids. Talk to them in a way that focuses on the process: ‘I’m sorry you are not happy with how things went. Could you try it a different way? Could you talk to your teacher?’ What is not helpful is language that suggests their intelligence is fixed: ‘That’s OK, honey. I wasn’t good at math either.’ Or ‘Don’t worry. You are so good at reading!’”
Tish Biesemeyer, mother of Olympic skier Tommy Biesemeyer (famous for enduring and overcoming serious injuries), took this approach: “He started skiing when he was 3 years old using cut-down skis in our backyard. By the time he was 12, he was competing against older kids. He would get so mad at himself if he lost a race, but he was determined. I would tell him, ‘Just getting pissed off isn’t going to do it. How about you talk to your coaches about how to fix it?’” She credits his early experiences in resilience for his ability to withstand making the Olympic team in 2018, only to have to miss competing due to a last-minute injury. And he’s racing again: “Tommy has had to claw for everything he’s achieved. His setbacks have just made him dig deeper,” she says.
You may think being a good role model means you have to appear perfect. Quite the contrary. Sharing your own stumbles can show kids that mistakes are totally normal and thus helps them take their own in stride. Says Biesemeyer, “I’m in sales. I would come home and tell my kids, ‘I didn’t get that sale, and I’m so bummed! Here’s what I’ll do differently next time.’” Simmons regularly shares her mistakes with her 6-year-old daughter: “I’ll say, ‘Whoops, I forgot to call the plumber. I’ll remember next time—my brain just got bigger!’”
You can also discuss the struggles of their heroes—a favorite athlete who wasn’t picked until the final draft, say. J.K. Rowling famously lived through Harry Potter getting rejected by “loads” of publishers. In a commencement speech, Rowling told an audience of Harvard grads, “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all. In which case you fail by default.” Goosebumps.
Instagram pretty much has a built-in My Life Is Totally Perfect filter. Everyone on social media seems to be on the homecoming court, accepted to the dream school, and laughing with gaggles of friends at the best party. “These images can make young people think that they are the only ones who have struggles and bad days,” says O’Leary. “I repeat to my kids all the time: ‘Understand what you are seeing on social media is not real. Posts leave the tough stuff out. Everyone has bad days.’ Saying that over and over to them creates a mental basket for them to put those images in.” The parenting resource Common Sense Media advises you to frequently ask your kids how they are feeling about their social media feeds. Encourage them to take a break if all those perfect brows and perfect scores are making them feel bad about their own lives.
“My 10-year-old son prefers activities he is already good at, like music and math,” says O’Leary. “He recently wanted to start playing basketball. I got real: ‘You might end up sitting on the bench a lot, but go for it!’ Kids learn lots of things when they are not the best at something—persistence, empathy, losing gracefully.”
It’s never too late: Out of love, you may have spent years running interference. If you catch yourself filling out the learner’s permit form for your teen driver, be direct. Advises Lahey: “Tell him, ‘I’m sorry I have not been treating you like the competent person you are. I’m here for you if you need me. But I think you can do it.’”
Consider your parenting lapse just one more chance to model making mistakes and growing from them. After all, it’s a lifelong process.