The Resilience of Children, and All of Us

Photo of Maya by Jay Premack,

Maya…in…space, photo by Jay Premack,

From the time a child is born, there is the struggle: to know, to do, to become. As a parent, we spend a baby’s earliest days answering to their cry, becoming trained ourselves in an extraordinary responsiveness.

As infants become toddlers and then, far too quickly, young children, we watch, amazed, as they master new skills, as they alternate between the drive to autonomy that makes them insist on doing something themselves, and their quick collapse into tears and frustration when the button won’t slip through the tiny hole. A certain amount of retraining has to occur for parents, to still our impulse to help them through each small challenge, to step back and wait to see if they call us to act.

I’ve been reflecting recently on several articles, including one which detailed a self-confessed helicopter mom’s struggle to let her child take risks, and another which clarified a crucial question about happiness. In the first, with laudable honesty and self-reflection, the mom works with the author of Free Range Kids, a book about over-parenting in modern life, to recalibrate her family’s boundaries for her two kids.

She makes a list of risks she has disallowed, like using a hammer or playing in their front yard with access to the street, and works with the coach to address her own anxiety. She mentions the exhilaration in her son’s eyes as he tackles each new possibility, and how he perseveres with the hammer even after whacking his thumb.

Her candor provides a ready guide for parents who have gone overboard, as a means to re-introduce reasonable risks to children’s lives. As the research shows (for example, here), there is a widespread concern that some kids — read: children with an attentive family — are being coddled in ways that threaten their development, and even, over the longer term, diminish their feelings of self-worth. Perhaps it’s because we have fewer children per family, or because the 24-hour internet is always tripping our alarms, or perhaps even because so many of us work (indoors, in antiseptic environments) that we both view childhood as more precious and can judge risks with less accuracy.

But it was the second article, on the common confusion between the search for meaning and our quest for happiness, that really clarified my thoughts. The article recalls an important, ancient distinction: between “hedonic” happiness (i.e., satisfaction from acquiring status or stuff) and the more challenging terrain of doing work that is meaningful to you and the larger society. The medical research shows, amazingly, that people pursuing happiness without meaning are creating the same kinds of stressors in their bodies’ immune systems as people experiencing chronic adversity.

This is both an astonishing result and blindingly obvious. Who hasn’t looked at a paunchy investment banker and thought their pallid complexion belied their public success? This is physiological evidence of what creates resilience in our lives.

We know that people who serve others seem more vital and grounded — we admire them for their drive and their service, both. In movies and books, we celebrate them as heroes — as long-toiling, unheralded, creating meaning out of darkness. If so many people did not choose this path of simple respect for hard work and quiet dedication, nothing would work: our mail would never get delivered, scientific discoveries would not be made, and dinner would never get cooked.

This is necessary work, and life is work. Of course, the work of children is play, and exploration. And while they grow, we would like to protect them from harm. Some days, though, we would even like to shield them from fear or disappointment. Balancing our need to protect them with an understanding that resilience is a learned response, and trusting that they are active agents in the co-creation of their lives, both capable and aware, is the challenge.

Complicating the task, as yet a third prescient article pointed out, is the rarely acknowledged fact that living is inherently traumatic. Even now, at two, Maya will worry about Swiper, the most innocent of villains in her (idiotic) Dora books, or bring home concerns about whether the lions in the zoo can come to our house. I reassure her as best I can, but I know that one day relatively soon she will see through the facile surface of my soothing tones, and come to doubt my word if I over-promise. I can tell her today that the lions aren’t coming, but I can’t promise her much else.

Fear of loss is written into our lives, and figuring out what information is appropriate for which child at which age is a constant act of careful judgment and re-balancing. Of course, grief and loss interfere more often than we care to admit with the lives of children, most commonly when they must dealt with the death of a loved one or a beloved pet.

In these difficult conversations, our own apprehension can mean we just talk too much: interpreting their questions, which can turn out to be quite simple, as a need to understand the whole picture from an adult perspective. Slowing down to really hear what they are asking and assess what they need to know in response turns out to be essential, so that we don’t overshare inadvertently. Often what is required is the simple facts.

We also have to acknowledge that many children live in daily peril of experiencing more tragic events like abuse and violence. Leaving aside awful, sudden tragedies like Newtown, there are entire neighborhoods today that deal with constant trauma from gun violence, as This American Life showed in its stunning two-part investigation into a Chicago high school facing a local epidemic of violence. These kinds of events are, of course, unacceptable, and should be prevented with far more foresight and care than we bring to them currently. Among other needs, what happened with the failure to enact better gun control is shameful.

But if we can set these types of unbearable circumstances to one side, it seems important to allow far more ordinary risks and failures. Imbuing our children with a sense that hard work is essential to success, that some frustration is an inevitable part of pushing through, that even real disappointment is part of the package, strikes me as a key task for parents. To the extent that some philosophies of parenting are interpreted as requiring parents to prevent children from struggling in a healthy, natural way with things that require sustained effort to accomplish, they do a disservice to both parents and kids.

The teachers I have remembered most (Patrice, I mean you) are the ones that invested in me by expecting better of me, all the time. A generous appraisal and belief in one’s capacity is an intensely supportive and empowering form of care, involving as it must such a close assessment of what is enough, and what is too much. And a simple statement of the results following a failure and a discussion of what could change for future attempts is often of more service than cheerleading, brassy dismissiveness, soothing talk or otherwise diminishing the significance of the goals, because any of these provide false comfort and undermine ambition.

Of course, there is a fine line between a show of power and a show of genuine caring. As a guide then, I take a few lessons for my own parenting choices:

1) Fear: Although I will try to keep inappropriately frightening content away from my child, I will also try to address her fears with honesty as appropriate. I will calm myself first, listen carefully to what she is actually asking, and provide a simple, factual response.

2) Disappointment: Although I will never manufacture disappointment (lord knows, children are whimsical enough to do it themselves many times in a day), I will attempt to deal factually and directly with the disappointments that inevitably occur: “No, we don’t have x, you may have y or z.” I will have patience with the melt-down that occurs, and understand it as a lesson in the facts of life: as her new teacher says, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” In this way, I will hope to avoid late-night travels in search of a particular color of strawberry ice cream, as I heard from a friend she once ruefully did…

3) Risk: I will regularly update my assessment of my daughter’s capabilities, allow her real choices, and support my child in doing hard things, because this is where ingenuity can happen and self-confidence can be built. I will make space she needs as she gains independence, and support her ambitions tangibly, without overpraising and without being afraid for her of the always-present possibility of failure.

We should wish for our children that they try and fail at many hard things, to help them discover the things worth working for — and what they are truly good at — from within. As it turns out, sustaining a quest for authentic meaning in our lives, even if doesn’t always lead to happiness, is healthier for both bodies and hearts. If parenting means anything, surely it means this.


Below is an original poem, from an adult perspective, on the trials of this effort, and its many demands. It’s a bit darker than the above, of course, but I was re-reading it the other day and it struck me that it speaks to resilience as well as hardship.

Creatures of Appetite

There are many ways to be brave.

There is the small fortitude of refusing an invitation,
saying, tonight I will stay at home alone and
do something of no consequence.

There is the tiny  – almost imperceptible – act of not flinching at a threat to someone you love.

There is the courage of yielding gracefully to a moment of inevitability, when it finally fails.

There is this grieving, too much of the time.

There is the stirring of a small obstinacy in the face of incredible tedium,
the getting up, cleaning, the taking down.

There is the fortitude of trying to stay in love or even just
to be kind when love is the farthest
unreachable place.

There is the stubbornness of looking someone in the eye
who is about to hurt you and letting them,
though you will study that hurt like a bone with its secrets.

There is a tacit acknowledgement that what you hoped
is irrelevant, and in the face of such knowledge

there is the strange persistence of how it asks and keeps
asking whatever you have,

how it empties your hands, just to move on.

The Many Uses of Disappointment

tantrum #500

tantrum #500 (Photo credit: demandaj)

I try to disappoint Maya every day. It’s really not hard to disappoint a 2-year-old, as she frequently loses it over the fact her bunny isn’t properly seated in its tiny stroller. (Those straps are so confusing!)

But many times, even in ways that I could satisfy her fleeting desire to have a cracker or play with the green crayon, I try to make her wait a bit, so long as I am genuinely busy doing something more useful to me.

I usually acknowledge that I did hear what she has asked for, so she knows her attempt at communicating was effective. But I’ll often ask for time to respond, and tell her no if it’s not a good time for her bizarre request.

Any parent of a toddler obviously says “NO” a lot — most often when their beloved fount of mischief gets their busy little hands up into all of the many things they shouldn’t. (“Not the wall! Please, the paper, not the wall!”)

That kind of instant “no” may be a learning moment, but it’s also a mandatory kind of denial. It’s essential to keeping our child (or walls!) safe and largely in one piece.

But calmly saying no to the stream of “wannas” issuing forth from a child — “No, you may not have a cracker, because we’re going to eat dinner soon” or “No, I can’t play the most annoying children’s song in the world again right now because my brain will liquefy and run out of my ears” — is a very different form of no. It is a more deliberate, even anti-democratic, moment in parenting.

It’s often hard to deny a child what’s gettable, or easy to get with a small stretch of our intentions. After all, we dream of our baby getting whatever it is she wants out of life, and as parents, it’s equally easy to imagine ourselves as the delivery devices for all of those desires. They break us all in when they are cute, needy, helpless newborns, and boy, do they train us well.

I’ve been complaining audibly about the lack of social supports for parents, but it also seems important to notice that the demands that many modern parents put on themselves are unrelenting, leading to charges of “over-parenting,” or (gasp!) “helicopter parenting.” (That last one always gives me a mental image of a mom wearing one of those multicolored beanies with heli-rotors spinning madly around her ears.)

English: Propeller beanie Français : Casquette...

Official Helicopter Mom Beanie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In fact, one recent New Yorker article, reviewing a book, compared “spoiled” American children, unfavorably of course, to Amazonian 6-year-olds, who can evidently catch and gut their own fish. Those children are welcome in my house any time, as they could show me a thing or two about not injuring myself around sharp cutlery.

It’s true that parenting sometimes can feel like a bad on-demand experience, in which whatever moving, well-acted art-house movie you wanted to watch is nowhere to be found in the arid wasteland that is now Netflix, and the only thing left on the menu is the same mind-numbing Clifford book you already read eight times today.

While I’ll normally suck it up with good ol’ Clifford, because, well, it’s reading at least, I do wage a more-or-less deliberate daily campaign to get Maya to accept the words “not now,” “not here” and “not so much.”

These are small, unimportant ways to make her comfortable with the difference, in a practical sense, between wanting the crayon and needing the crayon.

This is a distinction both she and I will find useful. When I see children acting unpleasantly, it’s often this piece of the puzzle that seems to be missing. And if all the hype over “over-parenting” is about calling out a parenting culture that never lets a child feel upset or sad, then the critiques are right, IMHO, that parents are taking something important away from their kids.

Both learning to mediate your own desires — and that being denied something you really, really want does little actual damage — are critical skills. If I watch very closely, I can sometimes even see Maya’s relinquishment of her need following a minor disappointment– that moment of letting go — and also see her experience the comforting persistence of the self despite this small hardship.

Of course, on occasion (though actually not that often anymore) she just flips out. So, there’s that to deal with. But even as I acknowledge her frustration, I still try not to give in on whatever point’s at issue. Why? Because I’m the mom, that’s why.

Often, if not always, the up-side of dealing with disappointment is self-reliance. Just today, Maya put it together how to ask that “mommy” get the bunny from the other room. My opinion happened to be that “Maya” should go get the bunny, since “Maya” wanted it. She went and got the bunny. I tried not to visibly gloat.

Just in case you think I’m merely being mean, there’s a bunch of science that shows that doing things for children that they should do for themselves — and praising them for merely being, instead of for trying hard at some task — actually undermines their self-esteem.

I remember how shocked I was during law school when a very successful fellow student — someone I’d always admired for their incredible drive — told me that he would feel utterly lost, and “wonder who he was” if he didn’t get that most-coveted of prizes, a Supreme Court clerkship. He didn’t get it, and although I have no idea whether the things are connected at all, I also gather he’s no longer working as a lawyer. It was sad to me at the time to see how brittle his self-concept was, and how all of his many achievements meant nothing if he couldn’t have this particular golden ring.

A focus on achievement uber alles leads to such pointless suffering. A focus on adaptability, on the other hand, should, if done right, produce more supple and likable people at the end, with a few more tantrums weathered along the way.

So there you have it, my friends. My oh-so-sage parenting advice from all 2 years of my experience thus far boils down to: Disappoint your child. Early and often.

In fact, look for openings to do it, since you’ll still spend far more of your day waiting on them hand and foot.


Clifford (Photo credit: OneTigerFan)


I found the following sources interesting on these and related points:

How do you think parents should respond to the debate about “over-parenting”? Is it media punditry or fact?

Are American parents over-protective or overly permissive or (could it be?) both — perhaps alternating these flaws in a self-defeating cycle just because we can never get it right?

Most importantly, how many times have you read Clifford in a row? I need some company in my misery!