Resilient and Self-Reliant Children: Born or Formed?

by Dr. Patricia M. McCormack, IHM

Partner with your students’ parents to help children grow in resiliency and self-reliance.

“Raising resilient children” is a contemporary sound bite, a commonly heard phrase in school settings. It strikes me that resilience is a natural virtue of early childhood.

Children fall down and they get up. Their delight, wonder, and curiosity lead them to explore with a sense of abandon. They think “possibility” rather than “limitation.” They adapt to the environment and they get absorbed in the present moment. Left to their own devices, youngsters are proactive about their reality. They are spunky adventurers who trust in themselves until adults step in to protect them from themselves!

Though motivated by lots of good reasons like efficiency, assuring accomplishment, saving time, or improving appearances, well-meaning parents and interested caregivers do tasks for children rather than wait for the children to complete the natural process. For instance, they may re-make a preschooler’s bed or—years later—re-design a book report or tweak a science project. Too often these kinds of adult interventions clip wings, squash initiative, and are counterproductive to developing a sense of self-efficacy within a child.

It is a precarious balancing act for parents to encourage the natural exuberance of early childhood while adding necessary safety cautions and skill training. Balance is key! For sure, a sense of security is essential to honing the skill of self-efficacy. Routine, procedure, limits, boundaries, and system form the basis of such security. Preschool parents are wise to establish a structured, though not rigid, environment and, as early as possible, to “pass the torch of security” to the child’s safekeeping.

Self-control, too, is essential to self-efficacy. Willpower is a by-product of successful attempts to make choices and to accept and learn from the natural consequences of those choices. Self-reliant, resilient children grow a sense of personal autonomy through repeated experiences of responsible independence. Adults foster autonomy within children when they live out the mantra: “Do nothing for children that children can do for themselves.”

Crucial to forming a sense of initiative and industry is the ability to manage time, prioritize tasks, schedule, plan, and set goals—in short, to learn the skills of production. Children who develop a work ethic enjoy winning recognition by producing things through steady attention and persevering diligence. They stick to projects, hobbies, or tasks, and they complete them in a timely manner without needing nagging reminders. They enjoy the satisfaction of accomplishment.

These goals are the focus of development during the elementary school years. Build confidence and competence by working side by side with a child to teach a new or difficult concept. Expect accountability. Teach time management by using a calendar, checklist, or chore chart. Break long-range projects into small goals and deadlines. Check for accountability in a timely manner. Let the maxim “Plan your work and work your plan” become a theme song! Mentor a child’s sense of resiliency and self-reliance by modeling what it means to be a self-starter and a proactive planner who seeks constructive criticism and learns from mistakes.

Effective parenting practices focus on fostering security, autonomy, initiative, and industry. These practices provide the physical and mental environment for a child to develop a self-reliant and resilient character. Early parent practices lay the foundation. Children imbibe the lessons and adapt them to future endeavors. Little by little, when left to their own devices and benefitting from trial and error, children build psychic bank accounts to support self-efficacy.

Adults who mentor children into self-reliance could easily feel as if they were walking a tightrope. Graced balance is the key! It requires balance and grace:
• to determine a productive rhythm of “give and take”
• to know when to do something for a child and when to hold back
• to intervene only when necessary and only as much as circumstances warrant
• to negotiate a situation as a necessary temporary solution rather than as a pattern of adult control.

Tomorrow’s Flowers Are in the Seeds of Today

Dictionary definitions can serve as goals for developing self-reliant, resilient character. Translate those objectives into everyday age-appropriate practices. The result? An agenda for raising self-reliant children. There is no limit to the specific ways to achieve the goals. For instance, “depending on one’s own abilities, decisions, powers or resources” is one dictionary entry for self-reliance.

Consider how that dictionary descriptor goal can apply across the ages.
• From among limited choices, a 3-year-old can choose clothing for the day.
• A 6-year-old can figure out what elements are involved in setting the table for dinner.
• An 8-year-old can devise an effective system for collecting household trash on a weekly basis.
• A 10-year-old can create a schedule for weekly chores.
• A 12-year-old can clean up the kitchen after a family meal.
• An adolescent can use household tools like a wrench, screwdriver, and hammer, and learn the skills of laundry, cooking, and simple sewing.

As soon as children are old enough to understand the language, these dictionary goals can serve as a personal checklist. Though the level of sophistication varies, both adults and children can apply this approach to shape character. Consider descriptors of self-reliance and resilience as goals for personal growth and then choose practices that illustrate the goal. Little by little the character of self-efficacy will develop. defines resilience as “the ability to work with adversity in such a way that one comes through it unharmed or even better for the experience. Resilience means facing life’s difficulties with courage and patience—refusing to give up. It is the quality of character that allows a person or group of people to rebound from misfortune, hardships, and traumas.” In short, resilience is the capacity to recover from stress and adversity.

Just as a heat and pressure over time—lots of time—turn carbon into a diamond, resilience implies the presence of a challenge or a cross. Difficulty is a core element in the development of resilience. Often adults try to spare children from suffering, disappointment, setback, failure, or sacrifice, but in so doing they rob children of the opportunity to develop a resilient character. Better for the children that we adults help them to learn from the challenge, deal with adversity, develop a strategy for the future, overcome evil with good, and exercise virtue. Wisdom suggests, “Learn something from everyone, even if it is what not to be!” Every event or personal interaction has the potential to teach us something. These kinds of attitudes toward adversity shape a resilient character.

The bottom line is that a self-reliant, resilient character is not the result of a birthday. It is the by-product of daily life practices that nurture security, autonomy, initiative, and industry on a consistent basis. Middle-school students and teens began the journey to self-efficacy during their “terrible two” years. For the seeds of self-reliance to flower, children require successive years of figuring things out for themselves, being accountable, accepting responsibility for their actions and inactions, learning from mistakes, becoming confident in school-related abilities, and practicing life skills.

The good news is that it is never too late to cultivate resiliency and self-reliance—though sooner is better, and early is easier. Positive identity and purpose flow from a foundation of security, autonomy, initiative, and industry. When parents and teachers apply these practices with consistency, repetition, and continuity, positive identity formation takes root in the child. Over time resilience and self-reliance evolve as by-products.


Source: Today’s Catholic Teacher, August/September 2015
Resilient and Self-Reliant Children: Born or Formed?
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