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Sunday, November 25, 2012

Raising resilient children

Most of you know that I'm currently engaged in the fight of my life, against breast cancer. (You can read about it over at my other blog, Fighting the Freeloader, or follow the journey through my other Facebook page.) It's taking up a lot of my time and energy.

What has that to do with parenting and childcare, you might ask?

It seems, if I'm to believe the feedback I'm getting from my readers, that I'm showing an unusually high level of resilience as I battle this disease. Over and over, people write to me that they're amazed by the level of humour and strength that I'm displaying in these terribly trying and tiring circumstances. I tell you this not to pat myself on the back- I'm a bit bewildered by the fuss, actually- but because it's occurred to me that maybe I have something really valuable to share with you here.

What did my parents contribute to my
resilience now?
How did I become so resilient? Is there a path that my parents  followed which led to me becoming so mentally strong as an adult? What did I learn, that now enables me to bounce back from these dire circumstances with humour and positivity?

Surely that toughness and lightness is what we want for our children. How can we help them to become mentally strong adults?

I was thinking about this yesterday afternoon, as I lay here in bed after overdoing it by a fair margin in the morning (yep, I got it wrong! Perfect I ain't!). I have pictures of both my parents in this room, and as I looked at them I realised that I give my mother most of the credit for the person I've become. I harbour a lot of anger towards my father still. We had a very troubled relationship. But yesterday, I realised that I'm probably being unfair.

In adversity, when she was diagnosed with cancer, my mother crumbled. There were many reasons for that, some of them medical, but the bottom line is that she gave up; she was terrified from the start, and she lost her quality of life almost at once. There was little of the toughness that I find myself displaying now.

My father, on the other hand, fought his last illness literally to the death. Bedridden and crippled by arthritis, his mind destroyed by dementia, he raged against the dying of the light. Taken to the nursing home against his will in his eighties, he struck out at the carers with his walking stick, hurdled a picket fence (how?) and ran down the road in an attempt to get himself home. On the day he died, the nurses were stunned to find him sitting in the chair by his bed, apparently looking out the window. After being unable to move for months, he had, somehow, got out of bed to die.

That's mental toughness. That's refusing to roll over.

Did I simply inherit my father's genes? Certainly there's a bit of that. But when I think back to my early childhood, before my father and I fell out, I think I was brought up to be mentally tough and positive. I think he vaccinated me against self-doubt. He taught me how to fight.

The war hero
The first signpost I see, as I analyse this, is that his response to a problem was to stare it in the eye and ask for its name, rank and serial number. This was modelled to me from birth. My dad was a war hero; I was brought up on stories (never told by him!) of how he had single-handedly disarmed an enemy machine gun post, saving the lives of many of his battalion. He brought this bull-headed courage and directness to any problem he encountered in civilian life: analyse the situation, find the cause, attack.

Often, traumatised by his war experiences, he did that with somewhat excessive vigour. Often he alienated people. But he modelled the method of analyse and act, rather than taking the path of least resistance, engaging in protracted navel-gazing or worrying too much about the impression he was making. His was, I believe, a traditionally male way of dealing with problems (though of course there are women who have learned to deal like this too).

My mother tended more to the slow internal burn, followed by comic revenge served cold- which was often highly amusing but rarely fixed the problem in the long term. I see now that I learned my problem-solving skills from my father, moderated by my mother's humour.

In parenting terms, I believe we can teach this to our children through modelling. Instead of dwelling on our problems and turning them over and over, as women tend to do ad infinitum with their girlfriends, we can choose to analyse and act - we can try to bring that more male energy to our own challenges. And we can try to appreciate that decisive approach when we see it demonstrated by the males in our (and our children's) lives. We can be less critical of the male approach.

Our children are watching. They will pick up on our use and appreciation of this directed energy, and they'll see that it short-circuits anxiety.

Imagine your own child as an adult, faced as I am with a terrifying cancer diagnosis. Do you want your child to turn their overwhelming fear over and over and over in their mind and discuss it endlessly with their friends until it destroys their peace completely? Or do you want them to be able to analyse and act? Choose their course of treatment, find their support system, discover a way of dealing positively with each challenge as it arises?

There comes a point where talking about a problem becomes the problem. Be careful what you're modelling.

The second signpost I've found is my father's positive approach to risk-taking when I was very young. He took an inform and let go approach. There's plentiful research available now on this one; it is being shown over and over again that refusing to allow children to take risks and learn from them has a negative impact on their resilience as adults.

My parents didn't always agree on
child-rearing- of course not!
I was so lucky. My mother's natural instinct was to wrap me in cotton wool- especially after I contracted rheumatic fever, a potentially deadly disease, at age 5. Fortunately I recovered completely, but my mother never forgot it and was significantly over-protective ever after.

My father, on the other hand, never missed a beat. He took my brother and me on countless bush walks and nature trips, and there was always a running educational commentary (with practical demonstrations) on sensible safety precautions.

Never thrust your hand into a dark place. There might be a spider in there.

Look on the other side of a fallen log before you step over it. Snakes love to sun-bake there.

Never turn your back on the sea. A freak wave can come out of nowhere.

Test a rock for movement before putting your full weight on it when you're climbing or near water. It might be loose.

Take notice of where the sun is. It helps you know where you are if you go off the track.

Step on the clean rocks in the creek. Moss is slippery.

And so on. Note that all this advice was restricted to situations that might prove life-threatening to us. He never told us don't pick up a stick, for example, because you might poke your eyes out. He never assumed we were stupid. We always got the benefit of the doubt, and we were allowed to find out plenty of things for ourselves by making mistakes.

This yabby didn't nip me!
But many others did...
A yabby will nip you if you pick it up in the wrong place, and damn, it hurts! 

If you run on rough ground, you'll probably trip and fall and take the skin off your knee. Ouch!

And so on.

When he saw evidence that we were taking his advice on board, we were allowed to go out without an adult chaperone- into the Australian bush (despite the numerous lethal creepy crawlies we might encounter there) and to the creek (despite the fact that neither of us could swim). We were trusted to make good decisions. We didn't let him down.

That trust, applied in early childhood, gave me a strong self-belief. I am strong. I can do anything a boy can do.  I can be unafraid, because I know and recognise what is dangerous. I can make good decisions for myself when faced with danger. 

These are powerful mantras for a child. They are vital mantras to me now, when my life is threatened by something over which I have very limited control. It is my father's attitude to fear that has rubbed off on me- learn about the danger, deal with it decisively when it arises, move on. I am making good decisions about dealing with my cancer; I trust myself to do so.

Letting go of our children, allowing them to take reasonable risks, is tough work for us. We desperately desire our children's happiness and safety. We resile from emergency trips to hospital when our child falls out of a tree and breaks an arm, from the permanent scar on our child's sweet face where they fell on something jagged, from the terror of an abduction. Of course we do.

But we have to look at these things in the long term, not the short term. We have to think of the adult we are raising, not just the precious child. And at some point, we need to put our child's long-term resilience above our own desire for peace of mind; we have to trust them with their own safety. We have to realise that by wrapping them in cotton wool, we are not actually protecting them. We are protecting ourselves.

If my father had allowed my mother to hold sway, to coddle her precious and longed-for daughter lest my beauty be marred or my life lost in some freakish accident, I would be a mess dealing with the situation I face today. Nothing my mother could have done would have protected me from this cancer, and I would have had to face it without tools.

Instead, I'm able to trust myself to take what might seem an outlandish risk to some people- to open up and tell the world what it really feels like to be where I am and to write about what I fear, so I can look it in the eye; to trust even complete strangers with intimate details of how I'm managing to live with this disease- because I know that my openness might help them, too. I know that if I can use my disease to help others, it will give meaning to what's happening to me. I am strong and confident about taking this risk. That didn't happen by chance.

I trust myself to know what is right for me, and what level of risk is safe for me. I trust myself to make good decisions about surviving this emotional and physical battering. I am making decisions for me, based on what is right for me, instead of constantly looking to others for guidance. First I inform myself of the dangers; then off I go.

The greatest danger of all would be to become a victim. I refuse to be a victim and to live in fear of what might happen. I have been brought up to be a survivor until the moment I actually die.

You can bring your children up to be survivors, too, but first you will have to let go of them. I believe that is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. Inform them, and let them go.

I know it will be controversial if I say that I believe that men are generally better at promoting risk than women- but I'm saying it anyway. Mums, please try to relax when the dads are playing with the kids and it gets a bit risky. It mightn't be the way you'd do it, but take your cue from your children's faces, not from your own internal voices.

If your kids seem terrified, step in by all means. Otherwise... try to bite your tongue. Even if it ends up with a trip to Emergency. Male figures have much to contribute to the growth of your children's self-esteem and confidence. And mistakes are painful, but necessary.


It would be unfair of me to leave any analysis of my resilience at that. I also have to pay homage to my mother's contribution to my survival- her indefatigable sense of humour.

My mother, with orange peel teeth.
With a role model like that, how
could I not see some humour in
losing a breast? Vanity isn't
everything, you know.
In our house there were very few things so serious that they couldn't be laughed about. Her sense of proportion was wondrous, and she taught me not to make mountains out of molehills. I remember when my brother dropped the dictionary on her toe while we were playing Scrabble one day, and we all ended up rolling on the floor laughing- even my mother was giggling helplessly, despite the agony of the Websters landing square on her pinky.

Teach your children not to take themselves too seriously. Model that by not taking yourself too seriously. Life can be tragic, but life is also hilarious; most things can be viewed both ways, if you can only learn to stand back and not be sucked into a one-dimensional, self-pitying view. If I wasn't able to laugh as well as cry about losing a breast, losing my hair and losing a year or so of my normal life, I would be in a sorry state right now.

So here are my precepts for raising resilient children:

Analyse and act on your problems, instead of wallowing in them.
Inform your children about risk, then let go.
Model keeping your own problems in proportion; try to laugh more.

Life is sometimes ugly and frightening, but it's also beautiful and deliciously amusing. Model problem-solving, encourage reasonable risk-taking and laugh with your children, and the result will be adults who are resilient in the face of great hardships.


  1. In light of recent conversations I have been having on facebook regarding good ways to parent children and promote self confidence and resilience, this post is monumental. I can't even BEGIN to suggest that babies and toddlers might have some small ability to soothe themselves and find their way to sleep without the constant presence and "support" of their parents before they're four or five years old, without a whole bunch of people being absolutely outraged at the suggestion. Aunt Annie, you know that I'm not bashing anyone, and that I absolutely believe that young children need our nurturing, support, and responsive care, presence, and guidance,- but we also need to give them messages that they are safe, trusted, and we believe they can manage small, appropriate challenges on their own without us (like finding their way into a peaceful sleep without us by their sides every minute until they're 5 years old). If we don't believe this, and we never give them the opportunity to try, how can we EVER expect them to grow up to face and conquer any of the many, many challenges that life has in store for them? Yes, it's our job as parents and caregivers to be there, to respond, to offer support, and then it's our job to LET GO, trust the child, and let them find their way- physically and emotionally. And it's not up to us to decide for the child when the right time is. We need to give them opportunities to develop this strength and resilience from early on, and then let THEM tell us if they still need more support- not the other way around. Thank you for this post, and for letting me vent.

    1. It's all about the balance, isn't it, Lisa? If we allow fear to rule our children's upbringing, we destroy the opportunity to create trust.

      I honestly believe that the attacks you have to withstand when you bring this subject up on your own blog are more about fear than philosophy. Parents are afraid of not being the perfect mother or father they've been led to believe they must be. It's also about self-deception. They believe they are somehow totally in control of all aspects of their child's life, and they try to micro-manage everything to ensure the best outcome. It's a business model used on a totally human situation, and it's utterly misguided.

      To understand that they are NOT totally in control is terrifying. To actively let go of control is unthinkable. I think the whole 9/11 thing has brought that fear to the surface of the American parenting psyche, because it seems that this is largely an American phenomenon. Life is perceived as so dangerous that children must be coddled and managed to within an inch of their lives. Even to leave a child alone on a mat on the floor for a few moments is somehow perceived as neglectful. The pendulum WILL swing back again, because that sort of 24/7 high alert parenting is simply unsustainable; you, Lisa, and people like you, are giving the pendulum momentum.

      Keep the pressure on! You are making a difference, though sometimes it might feel hopeless. And you're always welcome to vent here.

  2. Wow Candy, that post was a journey! I feel like while the messages about encouraging risk taking, letting go of insecurities and taking a more humorous view of the world are well made and salient, I can't help but think that by the end I am a little closer to you due to your willingness to open up and share so much of your personal life with the blogosphere.

    As always, your honesty is refreshing and welcomed. I also thank you for your continued support and fight for the men in this world who do and/or want to spend time with young children.

  3. Thank you for sharing your feelings in this post and also recognising the positive effect both your parents had on your journey. I believe that every person we have contact with has the potential to shape our journey - it is up to us as to how we allow these people to affect us in the long term and how we can overcome negative encounters and take the positive forward. I feel that being able to deal with adversity is a life skill and a very important one too .... just as being able to deal with risk is.

    1. I agree completely, Niki. If we protect children from adversity all the time, how can they ever learn to deal with it?

  4. Thank you for this wonderful post. A lot to take in and I read every word. Resonated with me as an Aussie with great cpoing skills, a mother of 5 and a grandma too and what we both learn and teach. Thank you and good luck with your battle.

  5. Well said! I can only hope to trust my young son as you describe. Do you follow the Free Range Kids blog? This is a story they would love!

    1. No I don't, Anon, though I've heard of it. Feel free to post a link here.

  6. What a fantastic article! I was following your blog and it is really an inspiration for me. Good luck to you and looking forward for more of your stories.

  7. Keep this going please, great job!


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