Raising Resilient Children

Source: Psychology Today, Nov 2004

… taking all the discomfort, disappointment and even the play out of development, especially while increasing pressure for success, turns out to be misguided by just about 180 degrees.

With few challenges all their own, kids are unable to forge their creative adaptations to the normal vicissitudes of life. That not only makes them risk-averse, it makes them psychologically fragile, riddled with anxiety. In the process they’re robbed of identity, meaning and a sense of accomplishment, to say nothing of a shot at real happiness. Forget, too, about perseverance, not simply amoral virtue but a necessary life skill. These turn out to be the spreading psychic fault lines of 21st-century youth.

… it’s in play thatcognitive agility really develops. Studies of children and adults around the world demonstrate that social engagement actually improves intellectual skills. It fosters decision-makingmemory and thinking, speed of mental processing. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, the human mind is believed to have evolved to deal with social problems.

In his now-famous studies of how children’s temperaments play out, Harvard psychologist Jerome Kagan has shown unequivocally that what creates anxious children is parents hovering and protecting them from stressful experiences. About 20 percent of babies are born with a high-strung temperament. They can be spotted even in the womb; they have fast heartbeats. Their nervous systems are innately programmed to be overexcitable in response to stimulation, constantly sending out false alarms about what is dangerous.

Those who allow their kids to find a way to deal with life’s day-to-day stresses by themselves are helping them develop resilience and coping strategies. “Children need to be gently encouraged to take risks and learn that nothing terrible happens,” says Michael Liebowitz, clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia.

Take away play from the front end of development and it finds a way onto the back end. A steady march of success through regimented childhood arranged and monitored by parents creates young adults who need time to explore themselves. “They often need a period in college or afterward to legitimately experiment—to be children,” says historian Stearns. “There’s decent historical evidence to suggest that societies that allow kids a few years of latitude and even moderate [rebellion] end up with healthier kids than societies that pretend such impulses don’t exist.”

The goal of parenting, Portmann reminds, is to raise an independent human being.

… one of the goals of higher education is to help young people develop the capacity to think for themselves.

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