Building Character and Resilience Revisited Helping Children Tolerate Disappointment
In the fall of 2012, I wrote articles on my website for parents and teachers on the subject of building character and resilience in children. The impetus for my thinking about this was the wonderful book by Paul Tough, How Children Succeed. This article is an expansion and extension of the same subject.
I believe that parents, and sometimes teachers as well, get confused about what constitutes supporting young children’s self esteem. They worry that without repeated praise (“Good job!” “You’re so smart!” “You are special!”), children will feel insecure and not develop a sufficient sense of valuing themselves.
While it is necessary to praise children at times, to be sure, what is most effective in building a sense of self esteem is the following:
- Recognizing, understanding, and validating children’s feelings
- Encouraging children as they attempt to learn new skills or are frustrated over the many things they can’t quite master yet
- Being specific with children in relation to exactly what it is that adults cherish and appreciate about them
For example, if a child is angry about something, refuses to comply with a request, or doesn’t like an activity or snack, if the adult simply acknowledges how the child feels and accepts that feeling, this goes a long way towards engaging a child’s cooperation and building his sense of self esteem. A teacher (or parent) could say, “I get that you’re having fun playing and don’t feel like cleaning up! It’s hard to stop when you’re having a good time! As soon as we get the toys put away we’re going to get to play outside in the snow, and maybe we could even build a snowman!” Simply by recognizing the child’s feelings and accepting them before going on to focus on the fun thing that will come after the child complies, the adult reinforces the child’s sense that how he/she feels is okay, that he/she isn’t a bad person for not wanting to clean up. Feelings must always be acceptable, even though behaviors at times are not.
When a child can’t figure out how to draw a house in a way that works for him/her and crumples up the paper and throws it down on the floor, the adult can say, “Wow! That is so frustrating when you’re trying to draw something and it doesn’t look the way you want! Maybe we could find a picture of a house in a book for you to look at, or you could start with just drawing a square. When you work on something lots of times, it usually gets better. That’s how children learn.” By labeling the feeling of frustration, the adult helps the child understand his feelings. By offering some support in the process, the child is likely to be willing to keep working on it.
Instead of global praise comments like “Good job!” and “You’re so smart,” which aren’t bad messages but are not very informative, be more specific in your praise. “You really tried hard to get that play dough into a ball. It didn’t work so well at first, but you kept working on it and now you’ve done it! It’s hard to keep trying, but you stuck with it! You must feel really pleased with yourself!” Or “I love how you tell stories with lots of different expressions on your face! You really help people feel the story that way!” Or “I really appreciated how helpful you were with your little brother at the store today. When he started whining, you distracted him with a song and he loved that. That was really good thinking on your part, and was so kind of you.”
Another piece to this puzzle is for adults to be able to tolerate children’s disappointments without rushing in to solve them. What I recommend is that adults recognize the disappointment and empathize with it, while also reassuring the child that she will be okay even though she’s disappointed. For example, “I know you really wanted to go to that birthday party for your friend even though we are going to be out of town. That makes you feel really sad and angry about having to miss it. It feels yukky right now, but I know you’ll be okay.” Or “I know some of your friends are going to see that movie and you want to see it too, but I don’t think that that movie is so good for children your age. I know you’re disappointed and angry with me, and I understand that. But I also know you will be okay even without seeing that movie.” And in the case of the movie, if the child has a tantrum, the parent can have the child be in a separate space during the tantrum and reconnect afterwards and offer reassurance.
Authentic resilience and self esteem arise out of interactions such as the above, which are empathic and growth promoting, but not indulgent. Allowing the child to experience and live through disappointments is critical.