Coping with failure is key to teaching resilience.
Now that both of my kids are in the latter half of elementary school, they're able to help with significant household tasks. Minus some bickering, they make good dog poop scoopers, and though neither is tall enough to reach every kitchen cabinet, I can't remember the last time I had to empty the dishwasher on my own.
And yet, in other areas, we have a long way to go. One of the kids recently told me, “I don't know how to make toast.” Another time, when my wife told one of them to wipe off the kitchen table, the child grabbed a broom and dustpan.
A friend recently told me he'd been making a mental list of the most important life skills to teach his son, and resourcefulness topped the list. It's a hard-to-define skill, as amorphous as it is indispensable, and it's seemingly woven into the DNA of some individuals and entirely missing from the genetic makeup of others.
Some people see challenges as opportunities. New tasks are puzzles to be solved, and resourceful folks intuitively know where to begin to solve them. For others, those same situations can be bewildering, overwhelming confidence-killers. Some get so flustered they end up taking a broom to the kitchen table.
Dr. Kevin Arnold, a psychologist and director of the Center for Cognitive & Behavioral Therapy in Columbus, defines resourcefulness as “a combination of self-confidence, problem-solving skills and resilience,” and says parents can help their children develop those attributes.
Arnold said kids should be encouraged to figure out their natural talents—a process that also involves discovering what they're not so good at. They will experience frustration, which is perfectly fine. Coping with failure is key to teaching resilience. Parents should see those instances as teaching opportunities, Arnold said. After putting the child's emotions into words and empathizing with them, moms and dads should offer help and instruction.
“When a kid says, ‘I don't know how to do this,' the positive opposite of that—the thing that we want to hear out of a kid's mouth—is, ‘Hey, I'm a little frustrated, and I don't know how to do this. Can you show me how?' ” Arnold said. “Not knowing how to do something is very different from not being able to do it.”
When instructing kids, Arnold said it's important to break down tasks into their component parts. Instead of saying, “Load the dishwasher,” start with taking the dirty dishes from the dinner table to the kitchen counter, then show them how to rinse them off in the sink and so on, praising them each step of the way. “Kids will swim over an ocean of fire for approval and attention,” Arnold said.
Sometimes, one child will catch on quickly while a sibling will require painstakingly detailed instructions. In those situations, be honest. “We have to make sure we're not BS-ing our kids,” said Theresa Gaser, an author and counselor at the Center for Cognitive & Behavioral Therapy. “So acknowledge that, yes, this is an area that's harder for you, but these are areas that aren't hard for you.”
After some patient, purposeful parenting in these areas, maybe, just maybe, the specter of toasted bread won't loom quite as large.
Joel Oliphint is associate editor of Columbus Alive. He sometimes requires painstakingly detailed instructions.