How Do You Teach Resilience?

No really I’m asking.

Bullying. It defined my life as a middle schooler and now, having 3 kids spanning the ages 5-11, it’s again rearing its ugly head. While my children have only had minor run-ins with aggressive children, some of the stories I’ve been hearing lately are scary, tragic and downright gut wrenching. Nearly every story I’ve read on the topic finalizes with one plea: Please, teach your kids to be kind! 

And, oh, have I. I hope I don’t sound sanctimonious, but, truly, instilling kindness has been a fixation of mine since my eldest son was barely walking. I can remember hovering over the sandbox, ready to interject if he stole a toy from another child. At class parties, I’ll watch how my kids interact with their classmates, always looking for a teachable moment. I try my hardest to model kind behavior and, while I’m sure I fall short on days where their will is strong and my patience is thin, I think I’m doing a pretty decent job.  I’m probably like this because I was so relentlessly bullied as a child for my weight. I never, ever want my child to be the bully and so I teach them to be kind.  

But..what about other parents? Is it realistic to believe that the woman I watched verbally assault the coffee barista will read a story about a child being tormented by a bully and think, introspectively, that she must remember to impart kindness in her child? Now, I realize this is one isolated event taken out of context of the woman’s life and perhaps she was having an awful morning and regrets her actions, but my point is that not all parents are kind people. Not all parents even care if their child is bullying, and a teach-them-to-be-kind call to action will not change that. Not all parents are emotionally capable of teaching kindness. They might even be the reason their children are bullies in the first place. Should we continue to echo the “teach them kindness” plea? Of course. It’s worth it if it causes just one person to have a discussion with his/her child. I’ve just realized I can’t rely on it as any form of protection for my children. 

And so I’ve been panicking. While I’ve been so fixated on teaching my kids to be kind, have I dropped the ball on giving them the tools to stand tall when they encounter, well…tools? I’ve realized I must also teach my children resilience. I feel like at the core of a resilient person is self-confidence and self-assuredness. The problem is that I’ve struggled with self esteem since I was so young that this feels like an almost absurd responsibility to be placed in my hands. I get my feelings hurt easily, worry about what people think, and overthink things. While I have definitely gotten better as an adult, am I capable of instilling confidence and fostering resilience in my own children?

I’ve been reflecting on how I interact with my children. I make sure I pay them genuine compliments. I encourage them to stand up for what they believe in and I try to model this behavior, as well.  I tell them I’m proud when they’ve worked hard, regardless of whether they succeed or not. My husband does the same, and we both also have had talks with our children about the fact that most kids who bully do so because of something going on in their own lives; that their target is usually an unfortunate victim of someone who doesn’t have the skills to manage his own feelings and emotions. I also try my best not to put myself down in front of my kids. I remember reading something a long time ago that children watch how their parents treat themselves and model that behavior internally. So, even though I really don’t love the way my thighs look in any swimsuit, I try to put it on with a smile. Or a half smile at least. (It’s hard to smile when your thighs are rubbing together like 2 Easter hams competing for space in a roasting pan, am I right?)

But is this enough? Are these the things that will keep my child’s chin up when another kid calls him stupid? Has my awareness of my own shortcomings allowed me to teach my children how to love and trust themselves, or is my facade too thinly veiled? I just don’t know. 

But I do have an encouraging story that gives me hope. Last school year, my oldest son came to me and told me another kid made fun of his schoolbag for having stars on it. Told him it was girly and dumb. Already panicked for him, I interrupted his story to ask him if he wanted me to get him a different bag, but he looked at me like I was crazy and said, “No, I like my schoolbag. I don’t care what he thinks. I just thought it was funny he thought I would care.” He was in 4th grade and already had more gumption than I could ever imagine having. My lack of backbone was clear as day in my immediate offer to get him a new school bag, but he was certain in his response and stood firm. He wore that schoolbag with stars until it fell apart. Literally. 

So maybe I’m doing OK, but this parenting thing is so hard. You want them to treat others well. You want them to love themselves. And you’re trying to teach them these things when you, yourself, are flawed and fragile. But the more I think about it, the more I feel like the two go hand-in-hand: the kinder I am to myself, the easier it is to exude kindness. I hope this is a cycle I can create in my home so that it’s perpetuated through the generations. Because if there’s one thing I know for certain, it’s that this world would be easier to navigate with a few less assholes.

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