All of us parents worry about being the best parent we can be, and with all the conflicting advice out there it’s certainly a minefield. Over the last few weeks I’ve been doing a piece of work for Ormiston Families Trust about resilience and how we can build resilience in our kids.
I thought you might be interested in it too, so I’ve lifted a section of it to write you an article that is based on my research and I hope it will help you pick your way through the minefield of parenting “advice”!
Nature or Nurture?
The current thinking is that people largely turn out the way they do as the result of their experiences. We have some genetic predispositions, but the major influence on our personality is our childhood experiences. This terrifies a lot of parents (myself included), as we feel that the pressure is on! However, don’t get bogged down in worrying that it’s up to us to ensure our child has the right experiences in childhood, as we’re talking about the difference here between a childhood of adverse experiences, e.g. abuse and trauma, versus a “normal” childhood. If you are giving your child a fairly normal sort of home you are absolutely doing a good enough job.
What gives someone the ability to be resilient?
This is a huge topic, but I’m going to briefly focus here on building a child’s resilience: their ability to bounce back from setbacks. It’s a good thing to focus on, as after all, we know we can’t avoid setbacks in life, so we want our children to be able to recover and move on as quickly as possible.
If you look at these circles, this is a simple way of describing three different states we can be in:
The inner circle is your comfort zone. This is a nice place to be, and where we tick along happily enough. It’s not putting any stress on our system, and where we spend much of our time.
The yellow circle is where we are stretched outside of our comfort zone, where we are doing something that we are not that comfortable doing and we are under some stress. This could be doing something for the first time, or something we know we have to push through and get over, like taking a test, making a speech, or getting to the top of the climbing frame and back down again.
The red outer circle is one of panic. This is traumatic, and somewhere we don’t want to be. You don’t grow from being in this state, instead your system is awash with cortisol, the stress hormone, and too much of this over a long period has been shown to have detrimental effects on a person’s mental and physical health.
So children need to experience the growth state – they need to be stretched in all different ways, to push through new or difficult experiences, in order to bounce back and return to their comfort zone. If a child stays in the blue inner circle the whole time they will never learn how to be resilient, and if they spend too much time in the red outer circle they are also going to struggle with resilience because their nervous system is too busy in survival mode.
The problem with modern parenting, especially with the constant scrutiny of social media, and everyone competing to have the happiest family (to the outside world) is that many parents are keeping their kids firmly in their comfort zone, trying to keep them happy at all times.
For most of human history, parents have largely ignored their children until they are old enough to be useful, i.e. work. This seems surprising to us nowadays, as we have swung to the opposite extreme, probably because we now realise what an effect parenting has on how a child turns out, which brings with it a new set of problems. There are two labels that are given to parents who can be said to be over-attentive – helicopter parents and lawnmower parents.
Helicopter parenting is when parents hover over the child at all times, which makes sense when you have a baby or young toddler who is a danger to themselves and likely to stick their fingers in the plug socket, or climb out an open window, but if you are still doing this when the child is at school it might be time to reassess.
Lawnmower parenting is where the parent removes all obstacles for the child, so they never experience the natural consequences of their actions. For example, you realise your child has forgotten their PE kit, so you rush it into school to avoid your child having to face the consequences.
What both these parenting styles do is disempower the child, and tell them that their parent does not think they are capable of handling anything on their own, which is disastrous for their resilience. How can you learn to bounce back from setbacks if you never experience setbacks? How can you ever have the confidence to handle things on your own if your parents imply you are not capable?
It is also teaching the child that setbacks and failures are terrible, frightening things, to be avoided at all costs. Resilience is not about hiding from setbacks, or pretending they aren’t happening. It’s actually about re-framing setbacks as challenges to overcome. We don’t want our kids to be scared of a challenge, do we?
What parents are unwittingly doing by “helicoptering” or “lawnmowering” is keeping the child in that inner circle, firmly within their comfort zone. But by encouraging your child to step outside of their comfort zone, and try something new or push through something that they find difficult, you’re doing a great job in building their feelings of competence and self-confidence.
One easy way to start is to consider whether you can give your child a bit of responsbility around the house. Even very small children can be given a job to do – perhaps it could be their job to put the cutlery on the table, or another simple chore? This is a really simple way to build their confidence and show them that you trust them to do something for themselves. Yes, it is quicker if you just do everything for them, but it’ll pay off in the long term to give them a bit more responsibility.
What is needed is age appropriate support from parents, so the setbacks are not beyond what a child can handle. In a slightly different context, I have heard the level of support parents (and teachers) need to give is like teaching a child to swim. This metaphor applies really well here. You don’t chuck them straight in at the deep end and tell them to swim or drown, but also you don’t keep them in the shallow end the whole time either. You encourage them to go slightly out of their depth, with you there as backup, but they do have to learn to swim for themselves. You can’t hold them up in the water the whole time, or prevent them going out of the shallows, because you know at some point they are going to have to swim out there on their own.