Raising self-assured, healthy, happy kids is the fervent desire and clear goal of pretty much every parent. We look around constantly for the formula, the set of techniques, that will tell us how to pull it off. The latest word-storm from the experts includes the need to teach them or instill in them resilience, grit, and the conviction that they matter.
Used to be we could get away with making our kids feel good about themselves, boost their self-esteem, a feat that was said to release every form of success energy. Then a reaction set in. Critics scoffed. This self-esteem nonsense was nothing more than coddling, whose only purpose was to turn perfectly good children into useless, entitled brats. And wimpy ones at that.
Kids, we now saw, need a high testosterone count, not high self-regard reinforced with participation awards in place of awards for actually winning. Even the anti-bullying movement was critiqued for over-protecting young people from the slings and arrows they will inevitably confront in life.
So, if we're not going to try to stop bullies, if we're not going to acknowledge coming in second, let's take a different course and buttress our kids' ability to get back up after being knocked down — by a bully, a poor pitching performance, an illness, or the death of a parent.
They're all the same: body blows that knock you down. The solution too is always the same: Get on your feet and rejoin the fray. Show your resilience, your grit. In this scheme, failure is beautiful because it gives you the opportunity to demonstrate what you are made of.
And there are plenty of exemplars. Teddy Roosevelt, beaten and bloody, reenters the battle. Michael Jordan fails way more than he succeeds. J.K. Rowling's novel about a boy wizard gets rejected again and again by leery publishers. We sing not of our success stories but the failure stories, as long as the failures regain their footing … and, of course, then succeed beyond our wildest imaginations.
The resilience movement is now getting a major boost from social commentators like Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, who cowrote a fiercely marketed new book singing the praises of picking yourself up, dusting yourself off, and starting all over again — or Plan B, as they suggest.
As a parent, I'm not sure "walk it off" is always the best advice when my child is smacked in the face by life. Resilience is not the path to strength; it is evidence of strength. Strength is built painstakingly, incrementally, doggedly. Ask any personal trainer.
I work summers with children ages 7 to 17 at a performing-arts camp. They have a motto the kids recite daily. It starts, "Beautiful and talented, safe and strong." Strong comes last because strength is made possible by the three others.
If a child feels ugly and unattractive, clumsy and untalented, precarious and unsafe, it is hard to conceive how or why that child would ever acquire resilience or inner reserves of strength.
A child needs to know she is a beautiful expression of the best that nature has to offer; she is wondrous and she belongs. She has a unique potential to express her beauty through the talent that warms her soul, and is always searching for ways to break forth and enrapture us with that ineffable joy.
Finally, a child must have a modicum of safety, a space to explore those talents, experience that beauty, make the inevitable mistakes and know that, while we may look in awe when she picks herself up and starts anew, we are very much there to reach down and lift her when a lift is what she needs.