“Mom! I’m making a robot that takes pictures!”
I’m fascinated by my six-year-old son’s tenacity and focus when it comes to LEGOs. It’s one of the only toys that’s able to hold his attention for more than 30 minutes, which is a fair tradeoff for having tiny bricks invade every surface of our home. I love the way he modifies the instruction manuals to turn a castle into a “castle that also has a restaurant for ninjas” or a robot into a “robot that takes pictures.”
But sometimes his masterpieces don’t work out. When he’s all in on a fantastically complicated LEGO design and physics gets in the way of his imagination, he totally loses it. He’ll throw the LEGOs, then his body goes limp as he falls into a fit of tears on the ground. For the most part he’s past the tantrum phase of childhood, but when creative plans don’t work out he becomes completely unhinged.
During a recent LEGO outburst, I found myself feeling both proud and empathetically irritated. On the one hand, I respected his desire for perfection and understood his frustration. But my prevailing emotion was annoyance at his lack of resilience. Get it together, kid. Life isn’t fair.
His behavior may be developmentally appropriate, but it got me thinking… if children learn more from what we do than what we say, then perhaps I need to examine my own resilience… right after I calmly defuse the current meltdown.
Resilience has become a bit of a buzzword used to describe everything from the economy to businesses to parents and their children. It may elicit eye-rolls, but I’ve experienced the benefits of building resilience to cope with tragedy and disrupted plans in my life. I didn’t always move through adversity in healthy ways, and in fact I can pinpoint moments when I lacked the skillset to be resilient.
As a teen, my go-to response to disappointment was defiance, which I assume was an effort to regain some sense of control. My twenties brought on more independence, accompanied by a variety of self-sabotaging behaviors for dealing with adversity. You could say a combination of binge drinking, rage shopping, and revenge dating was my version of a LEGO meltdown.
By my thirties, things got real. The setbacks were more challenging and the stakes were higher. The pain of a breakup or a refuted job promotion in my twenties paled in comparison to the devastation of multiple miscarriages, the loss of my dad and sister, and my son’s autism diagnosis. But by that time I’d inadvertently been working on my resilience. Somewhere along the way I’d learned that all the talent, education, prestige, and meticulous planning in the world can’t defend against the inevitable ups and down. If I want to be happy I need to find ways to pull myself through the storyline of my life.
Maybe turning forty during a global pandemic brought it all together for me, but it feels like I hit my resilience stride. I’ll never have the chance to tell my younger self how to bounce back more gracefully, so instead I’ll focus on accelerating the learning curve for my kids so they can build resilience earlier on in their lives.
Here are the messages in resilience I hope to pass on to my boys.
This too shall pass. Truly, the only constant is change, so we might as well become comfortable with life’s impermanence. Whether it’s a misfortune or a source of joy, most of our experiences are either fleeting or can be overcome in time. My boys have already endured the loss of their grandfather and their aunt, but I’m fairly certain they learned more about the circle of life from a bird that flew into our window and died and the caterpillars we raised to become butterflies last summer. They’re learning skinned knees heal, so regardless of how the sentiment resonates in their little hearts, I won’t shelter them from the things that can teach them to embrace change.
Feel all the feelings. My boys have some BIG feelings, and admittedly, it often catches me by surprise. Sometimes I’m guilty of responding with masculine stereotypes instead of promoting the emotional authenticity they need to build resilience. A low-stakes problem like a broken Batman arm is a big deal to them, and today’s missing teddy bear is practice for the bigger ticket setbacks they’ll encounter as they get older. I need to help them label their feelings so they can feel free to sit with anger, sadness, or fear without judgment.
Learn to fail well. My kids have this growing obsession with winning the board game or being first in line, and a resistance to trying new things like crossing the monkey bars or swinging the bat without some assurance of success. I fear that if they don’t learn to tolerate the stress of failure now, they’re bound to lead boring, risk-averse lives. I want them to be healthy risk-takers who respect their vulnerabilities and see mistakes as opportunities to do better. We have some work to do here… Learn to fail, boys. Dad and I are pros!
Prioritize your people. On more than one occasion this past year, we bundled up in our snow gear, put on our masks, and built a bonfire just so we could safely see our extended family during the pandemic. If that’s not modeling the importance of strong emotional connections and nurturing your tribe, I don’t know what is! Resilience does not mean going it alone. I think many adults find it difficult to lean into the unconditional love and empathy that’s available to them. We’re ridiculous. Kids need to feel empowered to seek help when they’re working through difficult situations. A reliable support system will carry them through the good and bad in their lives, so we’ll continue exposing them to the people who care about them.
Find the gift. My boys may be too young to grasp the concept of evolving their personal purpose, but we can talk about turning problems into possibilities. Devastated your lunch was served on the green plate instead of the orange one? Let’s talk about all the awesome things that are green! My small humans often see the glass as half empty, so I try to help wire them toward optimism. Someone told me about having daily rose, thorn, and bud conversations with your kids: the rose is their favorite part of that day, the thorn is something that was challenging, and the bud is something they’re looking forward to. Their roses are routinely related to toys or sweets, but it’s a good barometer for the things that really stick with them. I almost never guess what their thorn is going to be, which tells me they are starting to practice resilience.
As parents, we want to give our kids the world. But it’s important to reel it in so we’re not raising a generation of melting snowflakes. I’d love for my boys to experience a full life where the blood flows fiercely through their veins and they approach each new day with tenacity and grit. It’s my job to make sure they know it’s all within their reach.
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