As hard as it may be, the best way to help our children gain confidence is to allow them to struggle, find meaning, and learn from their own experiences.by Rob Gustavson, Head of School
Writing on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics, Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg has described resilience as the ability to recover from setbacks with optimism, the quality of bouncing back. “Resilient people,” he writes, “see challenges as opportunities. They do not seek problems, but they understand that they will ultimately be strengthened from them. Rather than engaging in self-doubt, catastrophic thinking, or victimization . . . they seek solutions.”
Ginsberg also makes an important distinction between resilience and perfectionism. Since perfectionists fear making any mistakes, they perform well within their comfort zone but don’t take chances. They tend to pursue only activities in which they are certain they will excel. Resilient people are usually more broadly successful because they push their limits; they take necessary risks and view mistakes as chances to learn.
“Traveler, there is no road; you make your own path as you walk.” - Antonio Machado
Resilience is based on confidence, and confidence is gained from experience. We can’t give our children confidence; they must acquire it themselves. But there are some things we can do to facilitate its development, the most important of which is to relinquish our desire to direct their lives. As hard as it may be, the best way to help our children gain confidence is to allow them to struggle, find meaning, and learn from their own experiences. Although difficult, we need to help them come to see—and accept ourselves—that they must learn how to make their own way in the world. In the words of poet Antonio Machado, “Traveler, there is no road; you make your own path as you walk.” We help our children develop confidence in themselves by showing them that we have confidence in them.
This past summer our faculty and staff read the book How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former undergraduate dean at Stanford, in which she makes a compelling case for the importance of allowing our children to learn how to thrive in the world rather than be protected from it. She writes, “A child learns, grows, and ultimately succeeds by diving into what interests them, doing and thinking for themselves, trying and failing and trying again, and developing mastery through effort.” This sense of intrinsic motivation and agency that she describes comes from self-knowledge, a tolerance for making mistakes, and a willingness to take action in the face of uncertainty.
Agency requires adaptability and pragmatism, based not on a desire to achieve perfect performance, but on a mindset of continuous learning, improvement, and growth. Lythcott-Haims writes with candor and humility about her struggles to break free from over-parenting her own children. “We want so badly to help them by shepherding them from milestone to milestone and by shielding them from failure and pain,” she writes. “But overhelping causes harm. It can leave young adults without the strengths of skill, will, and character that are needed to know themselves and to craft a life.”
In the end, as parents and as educators, this may be the best we can hope to do for our children: to nurture their self-determination, their self-reliance, and their sense of agency, so they can craft meaningful lives for themselves. And the most effective way for us to do this is by setting high expectations, providing guidance and support when they truly need it, and serving as a perpetual source of encouragement and unconditional love.