THE BLOG
02/03/2014 06:50 pm ET Updated Apr 05, 2014

Resilience: Why There's So Much More to It Than We Think

Reading The New York Times yesterday morning I found it calling Bill Clinton "the Big Dog himself, the gallivanting global statesman who is more popular than he has ever been," and my mind flicked back a few months to when I saw at first-hand how he does it.

I am sitting in a Midtown ballroom listening to him give a speech. He wants us to give money to help Syrian refugees. He is pink-cheeked, warm, laconic, funny, wise and compelling. I look around. He is holding the 700 in the room in the palm of his hand. Our eyes are riveted to him. We have all either forgotten or forgiven the fact that he cheated on his wife. To us, at that moment, he is the epitome of caring compassion.

What a Comeback Kid, I think, jaw slack with admiration, and another pink-cheeked man pops into my mind -- Richard Branson, whose Virgin career holds many disasters, along with the triumphs, and who says, cheerfully, "If you're going to fail, fail hard, fail well."

These two men embody the word resilience. They are as bouncy as beach balls. Even when they're on the ropes they stagger up, shake their heads clear, then carry on punching. Where would they be today if they had thrown in the towel the minute things didn't go their way?

We parents probably have a pretty clear idea that a generous helping of this kind of resilience would be useful to our children. We probably know that without it there is no good learning, because so much of being a successful student is picking yourself up after falling on your face and having another try.

But do we know the whole of it?

Because resilience is much, much more than that, as I found out when I was researching my book on character strengths for children.

In fact resilience is so multi-faceted, so important to successful living and learning, that it is a kind of inner superpower that we should be aiming to cultivate in our children from the moment they take their first breath.

Among the many things it does are:

  • Help you get up after failure and try again
  • Help you think optimistically and positively about issues you face
  • Help you believe you'll find solutions
  • Help you find alternative ways of doing things if the path you planned on taking is blocked
  • Help you think creatively about problems
  • Help you "reframe" bad things that happen so that they don't look so bad anymore, and may even have an upside

Imagine how much your kids would benefit from having a good dose of those things inside them during daily school life. That spelling test where all the answers were wrong? It's no longer a disaster. It's "Well it was a hard test and I hadn't learned my words like I should have, but next time I'll work harder and I'll try another way to learn, like getting someone to test me, and I'm sure I'll do better, and anyway I did well on my math test, so it's not all bad...."

Resilience will help them overcome all kinds of difficulties, from friendship fights to not getting on the team or struggling to understand algebra. It will also help them give off the kind of positive glow that somehow always seems to attract good things to it.

But can we actually help our kids to be more resilient?

It's true that some children seem to come ready-equipped with a hide like an elephant, while others quiver at every sharp word. However having an elephant hide isn't all good news. It can make you egotistical and insensitive to others. And you really don't have to be a bouncing extrovert to be resilient. Your child can become resilient in the way that's right for him or her.

So how to foster resilience?

There are so many ways. Among them:

  • Let your baby or toddler explore, and start to encourage independence
  • Avoid nagging and criticism
  • Make sure your child knows that mistakes are how you learn
  • Take every chance to let them feel capable and in charge
  • Help them understand and handle their feelings, and understand consequences to choices and actions
  • Help them learn to visualize good outcomes -- and how they are going to get there
  • Talk about "the voice in your head" that can tell you a good story, or a bad one, and help them learn to program their voice to tell a good one
  • Get them to see that there are lots of different ways of looking at one situation
  • Encourage them to do things for other people -- they'll instantly feel heaps stronger about themselves
  • Help them see all the different resources they can use to solve a problem
  • Praise their efforts, and particularly notice when they try harder, or try again

It may also help to talk with them about famous people who've shown exceptional resilience. But you might want to choose your role models carefully!