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Building Resilience

It’s that time of year: tiny kindergarteners ride the bus for the first time, middle-schoolers make a switch to bigger and better things, high school or college life begins for others. Yes, they are off on their adventures. But how do we know they will be okay?

It is a question pondered by parents around the world. Unfortunately, some of today’s parenting styles, especially the “helicopter parent” phenomenon, seem to be interfering with children in a key area: resilience.

A quick definition of resilience is the ability to pick yourself up after you fall. That might not seem like such an important skill. We have all seen our kids fall at the playground and get up and brush themselves off. But what about the bigger blips in life? Failing a test, not making the team, confronting a bully, or friendships and relationships falling apart?

A recent Washington Post story told of a volleyball player whose parents sued when she was benched. Parents demand teachers change their child’s grades. Graduate schools report parents filling out their children’s applications. Read that last sentence carefully: graduate schools . . . not colleges. This is where we are. But the question must be asked, Are we helping or hurting our kids?

I recently had the privilege of talking with Dr. Bo Smelko, a psychologist and expert witness in the state of Montana. He sees “a massive deficit to cope with immediate stress” in children today. In other words, children seem just fine until an unforeseen problem arises. Then, because they are so accustomed to Mom or Dad stepping in to solve the problem, the children lack the ability to problem solve on their own. As you can imagine, this can lead to disastrous consequences.

By the world’s standards, resilience is the opposite of reliance. But Christian families have an added tool. Think of it this way: resilience = reliance on God’s Word. The Bible provides many examples of people failing or being knocked down by challenges and picking themselves up: Moses, Ruth and Naomi, Elijah, Jonah, Peter, Paul, and the list goes on and on. But the person never does it alone. It is reliance on God and his promises that allows the person to move forward.

What would have happened if David’s parents had been “helicopter parents”? What if David had never left for the fields to tend his father’s sheep? He was the baby of Jesse’s sons, after all. The land surrounding Bethlehem was filled with wild animals, thieves, every imaginable horror! David was just a child! But those experiences in the fields helped prepare David for his encounter with Goliath. Yet, notice that David was quick to point out it was not his own strength giving him the victory: “The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:37).

David relied on the Lord. And in the years ahead, many other occasions would require reliance on the Lord and would nurture the resilience David would need: Saul’s hatred and attempts on David’s life, the death of his best friend, the death of an infant son, the rebellion and death of yet another son. Although a great king of Israel, David did not lead an easy life. Nobody does—not in this imperfect world.

David said, “I keep my eyes always on the LORD. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay” (Psalm 16:8-10).

David prepared his son Solomon for the task of building the temple with these words: “Be strong and courageous, and do the work. Do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God, my God, is with you” (1 Chronicles 28:20).

David knew that building the temple was a huge task. He also knew he would not be there to help. There were bound to be bumps and bruises, frustrations, and disappointments along the way. But with God’s help, Solomon would complete the project.

Interestingly enough, a study done by Nancy C. Larson and Melissa Dearmont showed that farming and ranching communities excel at raising resilient children. We aren’t talking about “street smarts” but the ability to cope with unforeseen problems. How is this possible? If you were raised in this lifestyle, you have a slew of stories about unforeseen problems: weather destroying crops, the tragic death of a loved one, equipment breaking down in the middle of a field, etc. This is how David grew up, as did many in the land of Israel.

But these types of communities retain other important characteristics: The nuclear family is still strong. There is an overlapping relationship between family and community—the “everybody knows everybody” community—and church is still an important gathering point on weekends. But city dwellers and suburbanites can work to achieve these same characteristics.

As parents, Smelko says, it is our job to be “vigilant of deficits in resiliency.” As Christian parents, it is our job to foster our children’s knowledge of Scripture and how it applies to our lives here and now, so when life’s blips, blunders, and failures cause us to fall, we (and they) respond as David did: “My soul finds rest in God; my salvation comes from him. Truly he is my rock and my salvation; he is my fortress, I will never be shaken” (Psalm 62:1,2).

Regardless of the type of community we live in, here is a list of tips for building resilience in our children:

  • “Experiential pieces create resiliency,” says Smelko. Gone are the days of hopping on a bike in the morning and coming home in time for dinner. But there are ways parents can step back. Summer camp away from home is one idea. A simpler idea is just observing the next time there is a playground issue. Resist the urge to jump in and problem solve for your child. Problems with a teacher? Talk about it at home, but then encourage the child to discuss the issue with the teacher on his/her own.
  • Community connections are also important. This may include involvement in school clubs, at church, at home, or even around the neighborhood.
  • Encouragement is key. Nobody excels at everything, but everybody excels at something. Know your children’s strengths and encourage them in those areas, so when they fall in one area, another area serves as the pick-me-up.
  • Transparency about failure is healthy. Talk to your children about failure. Whether it is on the playing field, on the next chapter test, or at the school dance, they will experience failure. Acknowledging this in advance does not make you a “negative Nancy.” It makes you realistic in a sin-filled world. Share your own stories about failure when you were a child.
  • God’s promises are the foundation of resilience. Teach that resilience = reliance on God’s Word—specifically the saving message of Christ’s death and resurrection. His seeming failure (death on the cross) is our greatest victory (life in heaven). In the end, that’s what matters so much more than report cards, playing time, and batting averages.

By Heather Bode, from Parents Crosslink © 2015 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit: "Chain" by George Hodan is licensed under CC0 1.0.

Heather Bode lives in Helena, Montana, where her husband serves as pastor for Valley View Lutheran Church. They have been blessed with five children.

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