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Resilience is one of those buzzwords that was dropped in the lap of parents and educators a few years ago and has sat there since like a puppy – squirming, whining and demanding our attention. It’s adorable and you’d definitely like to keep it, but hold it too tightly and it will jump right out of your lap. And then who knows what to do with it?
In generations past – and in simple terms – resilience has essentially meant being tough. It usually referred to a physical object or institution that could outlast the weather, time, and slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. This is still the case in a modern context, but the concept of resilience now applies more frequently to humans and has evolved to understand “toughness”, less as rigidity and more as elasticity. In other words, resilient humans need not be indestructible brick walls that the wolf can’t blow down, but more like trees who can bend and sway with the wind.
Human rigidity, we now know, isn’t good for mental health; and human indestructibility is a façade. I mention this because most articles on resilience assume a shared understanding between writer and reader of what a resilient child looks like. One of the most common visions is of a child who is contained. That is, they face challenges, they do their best in all circumstances and they solider on through adversity. Basically, they suck it up. Even if “it” involves very big feelings in a rather little body.
In this sense, raising resilient children is about teaching them to cope. Which seems a rather meagre vision of a life if you ask me.
Another common vision of a resilient child is one who is not necessarily tough, but who can bend to the world around them. They do well with change, they’re positive, they adapt, they look for solutions and they seek out the silver lining. They’re glass half full kind of people. You can throw almost anything at them and they’ll thrive.
It all sounds extraordinarily positive until you consider the fact that this idea of resilience denies them the experience of being human.
We don’t always cope, we can’t always bend (and nor should we, sometimes the group is wrong) and the pressure to luxuriate in the silver lining can lead to a denial of circumstance and self; to a false reality.
I know this because I was one of those kids. I was compliant, mature beyond my years, hard working and adaptable. I was easy to parent (while I was young!) and I was a dream to teach. But ultimately, the adaptability, the coping, the high-achieving and good manners masked the fact that I was suppressing – containing - my feelings to please the adults around me. It took me well into my 20s to learn how to even experience my own emotions, let alone work out who I actually was. And yes, I’m still a work in progress. We all are, but teaching a kid to deny their selves and their lived experience in order to fit in is a recipe for a mid-life Corvette.
So, I’m of the view that adaptability and compliance are (common) misapplications of the idea of resilience. This is especially so for girls who are also taught in a million ways, on a million days, that they should please others. Be sugar and spice and all things nice. Be nice. Be nice. Be nice.
What’s the alternative? How do you raise resilient girls? (I say girls because International Women’s Day is coming up but, frankly, it pretty much all applies to boys too.)
My view is that the way to raise resilient kids is to accept them how they are. Sounds simple, but look around – and in the mirror – and consider how many of us are trying to bend that tree. Any of the following sound familiar?
All these impulses (usually) come with the best of intentions.
They’re about trying to protect the child from what can be a harsh world. And all of us need to bend a little to fit in – and yes, some of us need a nudge in a new direction from time to time – but it is critical that we also honour our children as they are.
Some humans are fat, some are shy, some are loud and some have hair styles, and wear clothes, that other people don’t like. We have the choice to either accept that – and teach our kids to accept it – or to try changing them, and in doing so to tell them that the world is right: there is something wrong with you.
What if, instead, we made home a soft place to fall? A place where the child – and everyone else – was loved and accepted as they are today. What if we deliberately and proactively honoured their natural differences?
Your little girl has short hair and gets teased for it? (I have one of those.) You pack the house full of pictures of women and girls with pixie cuts. You challenge people who comment on it. You remind her she can have whatever hair she wants.
Your boy plays on his own at recess and doesn’t want to join in the tag game? You take him to the library and talk about the joys of solitary contemplation and thought. You find a chess club. You describe him as thoughtful and gentle rather than shy or, heaven forbid, weak. You tell him some of the best men in the world have been kind and gentle.
Your school won’t let your boy wear braids or your girl wear shorts? You get on the school board.
The only thing worse than a harsh world is a harsh world and a harsh home. How do you raise resilient girls? Be their soft place to fall. And if anyone gives them shit, fight them to the death.
6 March 2018
By Nelly Thomas