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Monday, January 10, 2011

Teaching resilience: how to get your kid back on the bike

'Lilian' took her 7-year-old daughter 'Marni' bike riding in the park the other day. Marni was ripping around having a great time when she tried to turn sharply in the middle of a puddle and came to grief, splattering herself on the ground and scraping off a fair bit of skin. Tears and fears! Marni was very reluctant to get back on that bike, saying she thought they'd better walk home.

Some parents would tell the child not to be a sissy, get up, stop crying and get back on the bike- which might appear to work in the short term, but could hardly be considered respectful parenting.

Other parents would be terribly upset, reproach themselves for letting such a small child do something so dangerous, over-comfort their baby and wrap her up in cotton wool, then take her to the doctor to check for broken bones (providing special treats on the way, probably in the form of junk food) while deciding to lock the bike away till she's older. (Don't laugh. I know parents like this.)

I'm sure you recognise that there's a middle course here which is more constructive. Neither of these manners of coping has taught the child anything useful, though both methods give a lesson without realising it.  

The first reaction has given a clear demonstration of 'I expect you to cope, so if you're in trouble don't expect me to help', which invites the child to keep their troubles to themselves (not a great lesson for pending adolescence); the second has given the child a fantastic dose of secondary gain (in other words, encouraged the child to do something negative in order to get the side benefit- in this case, to lay it on thick when mildly injured in order to get lots of attention). 
Do you know some adolescents who never tell their parents a thing about what's happening in their lives? Do you know some kids who act like they've been struck by a train if they get a tiny scratch on their finger? Both these types of kid can wear you down. Let's not encourage undesirable behaviour by giving the wrong lesson when your child comes to grief.

So, what did this smart parent do next to turn a bad experience into a useful lesson and encourage resilience in their child? 
Lilian got it totally right. She picked her daughter up, checked for any serious injuries (none), comforted her and washed the blood off and then sat down with her to talk about what went wrong. She told Marni about a few prangs she'd had herself at a much more 'mature' age, and they had a bit of a laugh. This little bit of special time and sharing gave Marni emotional support, a sense of perspective and some time to recover her nerve, and eventually she did get back on (with plenty of encouragement from Lilian) and ride (slowly!) home. 
With a bit of assistance from a video clip Lilian was taking at the very moment Marni had her stack, they analysed the classic bike-riding mistake she'd made, and soon Marni was enjoying picking out the moment when things started to go wrong. A painful mistake had provided both a useful lesson and an enjoyable piece of quality time together.

Children need to make mistakes, sometimes painful ones, and they need your support to recover from them. It's very tempting to try to protect your child from the little hurts and heartaches of life, but it's a huge mistake to do so; they need to learn what went wrong and how to fix it in order to bounce back, try again and eventually get it right. This applies as much to socialising with friends and asking for what they want without whining as it does to learning to tie their shoes and use scissors. It's a common failing to instinctively over-protect your child. Yes, Lilian's whole life might have flashed before her eyes when she saw Marni's accident unfolding, but instead of walking her home and locking the bike away to prevent further prangs, she helped her analyse what went wrong and then encouraged her to try again. 
At the other end of the scale, no child needs a perfect parent, so don't pretend. No child needs a parent who shows no empathy with their mistakes. Your children will learn so much more from you telling them about your own screw-ups! Again, you're modelling resilience when you do this. Marni saw that falling off her own bike a few times hadn't crushed Lilian's spirit or determination; on the contrary, she'd got back on the bike and then turned it into a funny story to help Marni feel less incapable when she did the same thing. That's being authentic and treating your kid with respect. If you put yourself on some ridiculous pedestal and try to be a shining model to live up to, you just set a depressing and impossible standard for your kids. Please let them see you fail. Anything else is dishonest. 
Over-helping, especially with body language that screams impatience, is another way to accidentally reduce your kids' resilience and independence- even though you may tell yourself you're being supportive. If they're having trouble doing something, try to resist the temptation to do it for them at once- save your help for when you see them getting frustrated, and then show them what the problem is rather than taking over. 
I know I was a repeat offender on this score- as a working mother, I know exactly how hard it is to hold back when you're trying to get out the door and a little one is struggling with his buttons. If you can drag yourself (and them) out of bed 15 minutes earlier in the morning when you know things are going to be tight, you've got a tiny window to be more patient and give them space to learn to try again. Even very small children and children at play need to be left to struggle with frustration sometimes- DON'T help them fit the pieces into that wooden jigsaw puzzle! Praise them for keeping on trying, then let them struggle on and work it out! If you over-help, you're stealing their sense of achievement when they finally get it right.

By now you're probably seeing some common threads in a lot of my posts- being honest, spending time and talking with your child. (Don't confuse this with talking AT your child. It's a two-way street. Can you remember how it felt to sit in a classroom where the teacher was talking constantly and you were meant to just sit and take it all in? Were you crawling up the walls with boredom? Were you listening at all? How much more did you learn in the classes where the teacher put her mouth on hold and invited you to participate, ask questions and offer opinions?) 
If you think education is something that you leave to your child's teachers, you're missing out on some really special times with your little one. Grab that bad moment and turn it into something good for both of you.

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