November 13, 2013 - 5:00 AM
TORONTO - When Julianne Harvey learned her first grader was being picked on, her initial instinct was to race in and fix the problem.
But advice from her mother-in-law — a longtime elementary school teacher — gave the author and mother of two a fresh perspective.
"She told me: 'Your job is to teach him to stand up for himself. You're not always going to be there to manage things for him, so you need to give him those skills,'" Harvey recalled in a recent interview from Crossfield, Alta., north of Calgary.
"That advice was really life-changing for me, and helped me to see my kids as needing these skills in order to survive. And my job as a parent ... is to take a dependent child and turn them into an independent adult. And I think we've lost the plot on that as a culture in the last few years."
Seeking to protect youngsters from hurdles in their life's path helps safeguard them from potentially hurt feelings in the short-term. But could efforts by well-intentioned adults to spare kids from the sting of defeat or disappointment ultimately create larger problems than they momentarily solve?
A Calgary school made headlines recently by deciding to eliminate academic awards in a bid to preserve the self-esteem of kids who don't make the cut — a move which rankled some parents and students.
In Texas, a powerhouse high school football team that netted a lopsided 91-0 victory saw a bullying complaint filed by a parent of the losing team (recently cleared following a district investigation).
The complainant put no blame on the winning team's players and praised them for good sportsmanship. Yet the parent described picking up their son after the game and taking him home as "tough," unsure of what to say in explaining the behaviour of the coaches for "not easing up when the game was in hand.'' The winning coach said he had tried stopping the game from getting out of hand, even speaking to referees prior to the game about clock management if the score was a blowout.
Neuropsychologist Sam Goldstein, co-author of "Raising Resilient Children," said individuals don't learn to deal with adversity "by sitting at the side of the pool," but by being given the opportunity in a supportive environment to try and learn from their mistakes.
"Resiliency is a process that enables you to function well in the face of adversity," he said from Salt Lake City.
"The data's pretty clear that if parents would like their children to be more capable of managing stress, then we have to stress-inoculate them — even from young ages."
Most of the time, children aren't taught resiliency unless they're going to be exposed to a really stressful situation, noted David Wolfe, director of the CAMH Centre for Prevention Science in London, Ont.
"We're trying to teach them normal coping methods, and the confusion that comes about with parents — whether it's overblown or not — is: 'Somehow my kid's going to fail, they're not going to cope well, they're going to collapse, they're going to have a disorder.' And the fear is probably more the parent's than the kid's," said Wolfe, a psychologist and author specializing in issues affecting children and youth.
"A little bit of stress is good. This is an axiom that's been around for a long, long time," he added. "Without stress, a person doesn't learn to cope and they can't live on their own, they can't live independently. They expect everything to happen the way they want it. The balance is between too much stress and enough stress."
"That's why you go off and you push yourself and you try to get that honour roll, or whatever it may be. It may be more stressful, but you know that you can handle it, or you can try to handle it. That truly is what builds strength in people."
Harvey, mother to Ava, 10, and William, seven, has been candid in blog posts on her website emphasizing the importance of instilling confidence in children and the value in managing disappointment.
She works towards putting her words into action as she aims to equip her kids with the skills she believes they need to be emotionally resilient. Harvey has made use of role-playing to help encourage discussion about challenging issues, like a person being mean to them at school.
"I practise being my daughter and she practises being the other person. It helps her build empathy because she puts herself in the person's shoes, and then she also gets the chance to practise what she could have said: 'That hurts my feelings.' Just teaching some of these skills around how to stand up for yourself, but to do it kindly," said Harvey.
Wolfe said there are "teachable moments" which occur all the time which can be used to help kids cope with stressors which may surface, most notably during transition periods.
"The first time they go into school or a camp is a transition time where you're able to pick up on normal feelings of anxiety they're having and say: 'Yeah, it's going to be a new experience for you. You're going to try it out. Let me know how it goes. It won't always be easy,' in simple language," he said.
"If they have to move, if there's any big change in their life, that's another time to help them identify what it's like to try to learn to cope and let them know that you're there to assist with that as much as possible — but you're not going to do that for them."
If a child is reticent to share information, another alternative is to ask about how their friends may be faring and if they're experiencing any stress as an entrypoint to discussion, he added.
In their well-meant efforts to shield children from realizing they're not the best or smartest in a particular area, Goldstein believes adults are creating more obstacles than benefits for kids.
Daily interactions between parents and children — and the mindsets of adults — help foster resilience in kids, he noted.
"Make sure they feel special and appreciated for who they are, not what they do, and accept them for who they are, not what you want them to be," said Goldstein.
"Help them each find an island of competence, something they do well that gives them a sense of identity, whatever it is. Help them appreciate and understand that mistakes are opportunities from which to learn."
— With files from The Associated Press
News from © The Canadian Press, 2013