How To Raise A Resilient Child

Every parent wants a resilient child. Nobody feels good sending a fragile or vulnerable kid in the world. We know that resilience isn’t just a tool to weather the inescapable hardships in life, but also the secret to surviving everyday problems without losing your cool, like dealing with difficult people or running late to an important meeting. 

The oak fought the wind and was broken,” the author Robert Jordan once wrote,  “the willow bent when it must and survived.” We need our kids to be able to bend without breaking, and to do that we must model, teach and cultivate resilience in them, body and soul.

So how do we teach our kids to be resilient without turning our homes into a Quasi-military Boot Camp? How do we expose them to the harshness of life without making them jaded? Here are a few of our favorite strategies for dads looking to teach their kids the art of resiliency. 

Resist The Urge To Intervene

The protective parental instinct is impossible to ignore. We’re always trying to protect our kids and keep them out of harm’s way, but is that really the best thing for them?

In the book, 12 Rules For Life, world-renowned clinical psychologist and thinker Jordan Peterson writes about the importance of letting kids engage in potentially dangerous activities. In the chapter titled “Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding” Dr. Peterson recalls witnessing children skateboard without helmets on and provides the following counterintuitive opinion:

Some might call that stupid. Maybe it was. But it was brave, too. I thought those kids were amazing. I thought they deserved a pat on the back and some honest admiration. Of course it was dangerous. Danger was the point. They wanted to triumph over danger. They would have been safer in protective equipment, but that would have ruined it. They weren’t trying to be safe. They were trying to become competent—and its competence that makes people as safe as they can truly be.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should encourage your kids to be the next Evel Knievel, that’s an accident waiting to happen. However, if we intervene constantly in our kid’s lives. If we refuse to let them fail, or hurt themselves, or shield them from any kind of struggle, we’re not helping them. We’re teaching them that whenever things are about to get bad, someone will bail them out. That is not how life works, and if we wish to raise competent children, we have to refrain from intervening all the time. 

Promote Adaptation, Not Accommodation

There’s a common misconception about parenting, that in order to be a good parent you have to accommodate all of your children’s needs. At face value, this would seem like good practice, right?  Who doesn’t want their kids to feel happy and accommodated all the time? However, we have to also be cautious about over-accommodating.  If we fail to teach our kids the importance of being adaptable, if we coddle them and make them believe that the world will adapt to them, they’re going to have a rough go at life. In The Stoic Parent Course, we talk about Theodore Roosevelts’ father teaching him this very lesson. 

Theodore Roosevelt spent almost every day of his childhood struggling with horrible asthma. He had almost nightly near-death attacks. He was left bedridden for weeks at a time. One day his father came into his room and told the young boy: “Theodore, you have the mind but haven’t got the body. I’m giving you the tools to make your body. It’s going to be hard drudgery and I think you have the determination to go through with it.”

Roosevelt’s younger sister, who witnessed the conversation, said it was the first display of what would become his trademark cheerful grit. Theodore looked at his father and said these words with determination: “I’ll make my body.” He meant it. His father built a home gym where Theodore worked out every day for the next five years, slowly strengthening his body against his weak lungs. Swimming, rowing, hiking, and lifting weights were typical activities for the future president. By his early twenties, the battle against asthma was essentially over. He worked that weakness out of his body.

Not many children would have the natural inclination to work as hard as Teddy Roosevelt did. But a tremendous amount of credit is owed to his father, who instead of giving into Teddy’s poor health, encouraged him to overcome it. A good dad knows how to strike that balance of pushing a kids’ limits without leaving them feeling defeated. It takes time, but the strategy worked for Teddy. It can work for your kids too. 

Help Them Manage Their Emotions

Not very much is known about the childhood of Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, but we do know that he struggled to control his temper early in life. In Marcus’ journal that was later adapted into a book, Meditations, he writes “A real man doesn’t give away to anger and discontent, and such a person has strength, courage, and endurance—unlike the angry and complaining. The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” We all struggle to manage our emotions. In our interactions with others, at work, in highly stressful situations—we don’t rise to the occasion—we fall to our level of emotional maturity and preparation. This is especially true for children, who don’t have as much experience managing their emotions as we do. Even if you’re not great at managing your temper, it’s your duty to try and make your kids better than you. 

In one of our recent Daily Dad emails, we talked about this very idea. We told the story of how Arthur MacArthur was a vain and conceited man. And how his son, Douglas MacArthur turned out to be even more egotistical than his father. Both men were notoriously self-absorbed and blindly ambitious, to the point where Douglas was relieved of his command after attempting, of his own volition, to expand the Korean War to include China. In this way, Arthur’s true failure as a father was not that he had an ego. It’s that he passed it on to his son, General Douglas MacArthur, without warning him of its dangers. 

When it comes to raising a resilient child, teaching them to manage their emotions is a requirement. Be it ego, anger, anxiety, or depression, our kids will need help managing them. Being a father is a second chance. It’s a golden opportunity to teach your kids the lessons you wish you knew at their age. You cannot let them be worse than you.

Be Careful With Expectations

We recently shared an email about being careful with expectations. Having benchmarks and setting goals for your kids is great, but there’s also such a thing as expecting too much. We gave the example of Lyndon Johnson, who as a boy often gained the affection of his mother by reading impressively difficult poems with ease. “I’ll never forget how much my mother loved me when I recited those poems,” Johnson later said. “The minute I finished she’d take me in her arms and hug me so hard I sometimes thought I’d be strangled to death.” The story is touching, no doubt. But the problem is that Lyndon felt as though his mother’s affection was a reward rather than something that should be given to him unconditionally. 

As Johnson recounts, it was not such a dream to be “mama’s special boy.” The expectations were unfair. It made him feel like he had to earn her love, or that her pride for him was conditional. Because while things were wonderful when he was succeeding, they felt terrible when he failed—like when he decided to stop playing the piano or dancing. “For days after I quit those lessons,” he remembered, “she walked around the house pretending I was dead. And then I had to watch her being especially warm and nice to my father and sisters.”

Teaching our kids that they have to earn our affection will force them to believe that they have to earn the affection of others too. It’s an enormously manipulative way to parent. They will spend their life as the embodiment of a “people pleaser” — as someone who would give their very soul just to be liked and fit in. That isn’t characteristic of a resilient child. Our kids need to know that they earned our affection by simply being born. Otherwise, they will frantically seek it in other people. 

Tell The Truth

Speaking of ensuring that our kids are better than us, we have to be mindful of white lies. A “white lie” usually refers to a lie that is only utilized for good and has minimal effect on the person who is being lied to. We do it to save face, to be considerate of other people’s feelings, and in parenting, we are masters at telling white lies to our children. “Mommy and daddy are just talking about something important” really means, mommy and daddy are arguing. “Don’t worry kiddo, we’re just a little tired” really means, the financial stress of being laid off during a pandemic is weighing on me. It’s worth mentioning that our head is in the right place when we lie to our kids. We want to protect them. But here’s the thing, there is a fine line between refraining from telling our kids the truth because they’re too young to understand, and refraining from telling them the truth because we think they can’t handle it, irrespective of their age. 

In raising resilient children, we must learn to challenge ourselves, to tell the truth. If they catch us fighting with our spouse, explain to them that sometimes mommy and daddy have disagreements and that’s healthy. If they catch us when we’re feeling stressed, explain to them that sometimes, life is stressful. Some might view this as cruel or pointless. But it sets realistic expectations for your kids. They’re already curious about everything, right? We might as well reward their curiosity with legitimate answers rather than half-truths and white lies. Children become resilient adults through experiencing and understanding hardship. Lying to them doesn’t foster that. It hinders it.  

Show Them “Everything is Figureoutable”

The last thing any parent wants is for their kid to be known as the one who can’t handle everyday problems. The humorous part of this is that we all know someone like this. Someone who was pampered so much as a child that they can’t solve any real-world problems. Not having proper problem-solving skills can be debilitating once a child reaches adulthood, which is why we have to teach our kids the mantra that writer and entrepreneur Marie Forleo calls Everything is Figureoutable.

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? Simple and self-explanatory. Everything is figureoutable. Every problem has a solution. It’s just a fact. It might not be the solution you want, but there is a solution. In fact, that’s also the essence of the idea that the obstacle is the way. Each problem presents you an opportunity to move forward, to improve. No one said this would be easy, or even that it would be fun, but it is a fact that there is always something you can do. The question is only whether you will do it or not. 

A common saying in parenting is that little kids bring with them little problems, while big kids tend to bring about bigger problems. Either way, the saying reveals the obvious—that life is full of problems needing to be solved. If we want our kids to have an “everything is figureoutable” mentality, we’re going to have to model it ourselves. We have to show them that we’re curious, that our education is still ongoing, that we’re constantly questioning and discovering and exploring too.

Lead By Example

Every adult remembers their parents using the classic line “Do as I say, not as I do.” Which, quite honestly, is just about the worst advice you can give to your kid. Parents are the primary social models by which kids assess how they should carry themselves in the world. If you swear and throw things every time you’re angry, chances are your kid will do the same when he’s old enough. 

Lucky for parents, the wisdom needed to lead by example is more prevalent than ever before.  Books are cheap, and nowadays, you can fit a thousand of them on your phone. “Today you can buy the Dialogues of Plato for less than you would spend on a fifth of whiskey,” the writer Louis L’Amour once observed, “or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire for the price of a cheap shirt.” 

He couldn’t have known that soon enough those books would be available for free on the internet too. For the first time ever, parenting doesn’t have to be a blind journey where we can only rely on the wisdom of our elders to help us through. We have unlimited resources at our disposal. Despite all the ways that wisdom has become more available to us, one thing has not changed: The amount of time it takes to read those books, to really understand them, and to apply their wisdom to our parenting repertoire.

The Resilient Child

What does the resilient child look like? It’s a perplexing question. For starters, they won’t crumble every time things don’t go their way. In interacting with difficult people, they’ll feel empathy for them instead of frustration. When plans change (as they so often do) they won’t be surprised—they’ll be indifferent. Raising a resilient child means they are capable of coping with the condition of suffering. Things will still bother them, sure. They will still get upset and throw tantrums every now and then, that’s just what kids do. But the resilient child will always bounce back. And as adults, their coping skills will only become more solidified and refined.   

Parents aren’t perfect. They make mistakes constantly. While there are a million and one articles about what the best lessons are for parents to pass on to their children, how to be resilient is unequivocally important. If life is suffering, it’s a waste of time to shield our kids from it. No, we should prepare them for it. Train them—like a spartan preparing for war as soon as they can walk. In the end, we’ll have raised adults who are ready and willing to thrive despite the condition of suffering. 

Resilient, and competent adults. 

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