I'd like to tell you a story; tell me if it sounds familiar. Before my daughter was born, I researched everything we purchased for her, deciphering implications of materials and potential off-gassing risks. Changing tables, mattresses, clothing -- everything.
When she was born, I pored over parenting books, intent on finding the perfect solution to the challenge of the week, whether it was sleep, nursing, weight gain, reflux, you name it.
Now that she's 4, I worry about how to raise an exuberant girl to be true to herself and resilient as she confronts the harried perfectionism and success-driven ethos of our culture.
Sound familiar? Here's what to do about it -- or at least, here are a few things I try to keep in mind on my own parenting journey.
1. Admit it: Things fall apart.
When parents think about fostering resilience in children, we often focus on how to best to support our kids, not ourselves as parents. This increases the risk of ignoring a few fundamental truths: We cannot line things up to create a perpetually optimal experience for our children. We cannot get things right for them all of the time. We cannot keep our children in a bubble to mitigate their experience of the world.
Life will intrude despite our best efforts. It always does.
Case in point: My heart broke the first time I witnessed an older group of children telling my daughter she couldn't play with them. I teach mindfulness and compassion, and still I wanted to throw it down right there in the playground with a freckled, puffy-haired 4-year old boy.
Instead, to avoid a truly embarrassing situation, I took a few deep breaths and focused my attention on the emotions I was experiencing. Once I calmed down, I put the situation in perspective and remembered that moments like these are exactly the experiences that will help my little girl tap into her resilience. When I asked her how she was feeling and invited her to think of ideas for different responses, we were both able to approach the conversation with more perspective and creativity.
2. Show, don't tell.
Modeling is one of the most successful ways to transmit values to children. No matter how hard we try, we'll never succeed in teaching children to be curious, disciplined or resilient if we consistently exhibit counter-examples to the values we encourage them to live by.
This doesn't mean we have to be perfect. But it does suggest that parents should start with their own experience.
To promote resilience in children, show them how it's done in the face of life's adversities. Here is some practical advice parents can start using today:
- Focus on yourself. Sounds crazy, right? But when you commit to your own well-being, your child sees firsthand the values by which you live. Behavior is so powerful because it shows what we value without our having to talk about it.
- Be transparent. When you fall short of your own expectations, fess up. Be candid with your children. If you're snide with your partner in front of your children, take it as an opportunity to say that you got frustrated, that you did something you regret. Think out loud about how you want to apologize, about how you want to do something different next time. This way they see that you're working with the same tools you're preaching about to them.
- Catch yourself. Notice the habit of skipping over your own experience to focus on your child. When your children are fraying your nerves, you can pause and bring awareness to yourself in the situation. Is your heart racing? Take a deep breath or even a grown-up time out. Then, when you engage with your child, you'll be more likely to respond skillfully rather than react out of frustration.
- Frame challenges. Look for opportunities to contextualize difficulties as a learning experience, not a problem to be fixed. When a child complains about homework or piano lessons, use the opportunity to model perseverance and commitment. Identify areas of incremental growth. Notice how skills improve over time with practice. And praise effort rather than performance outcomes.
As a parent, I often catch myself falling into the mental trap that there's a right way to parent, and if I can only find it, somehow, miraculously, I'll keep my daughter happy, well and whole. Focusing on myself and practicing these few things helps me reorient myself to what will support me in being a better parent, so that I can then focus on my daughter. Self-attention and self-compassion are helpful here -- and they're also critical in fostering resilience for both parent and child.