LET US KNOW ABOUT YOUR EXPERIENCE
The R word: Mis-purposed, misleading and making our kids miserable
This is an excerpt from a eulogy written by Eléna Trethowan for her cousin Michael O'Brien in which she lovingly describes their imaginative play at 6 and 8 years old respectively. This is mature imaginative play, characterised by lots of planning, purpose-built props and focus on rule-following:
Family dinner parties and gatherings were a relatively common occurrence for us in the late 70s/early 80s, and when we caught wind of an impending event, Mike and I, would engage in hushed telephone consultations, planning our own separate front lawn kid’s fringe festival which was usually attended by my brothers Christopher and Alistair and any other subjects who might be present.
Highlights of the evening included Star Wars themed duels with light sabers fashioned from wrapping paper rolls or vacuum cleaner tubes or any other handy item with similar width to length ratio, the end of which was wrapped in aluminium foil. Ad hoc costuming was often involved and self-produced sound effects, were of course, mandatory.
When deciding on who would play which character, Mike was always in charge, which for me, meant yet another sulky trip to the linen cupboard to find a white bed sheet and curtain cord and cutting out donut shaped cardboard rings with which to Leia-fy my hair.
Mike would inevitably assign himself the role of Jedi Knight: Padawan, Master, or one seduced by the dark side, it didn’t really matter, so long as they were lightsaber wielding and well understood the ways of the Force.
Don’t ask me how I managed this particular parenting fail. It was bought to my attention when our school principal called me.
“There’s a school bike ride next Monday.”
“Yes?” I said. I had read the timetable for the school camp to be held the following week.
“Rafi has just told his teacher he can’t ride a bike,” she said, rather hesitantly because there are never a lot of rewards for pointing out the obvious to the oblivious.
You can imagine the guilt-driven self-smiting that followed, but eventually I thought ‘well, we have a few days, let’s see if we can find an old bike in the sheds’. We live on a pastoral station, and Rafi has two big brothers who had zipped around happily on bikes when they were ten. His big brothers had utterly wrecked the training bikes, the little-dude bikes – which is why Rafi had never learned – but perhaps there was a ten-year-old sized bike somewhere in a shed.
An elderly bike was unearthed, wiped-down, pumped up: wobbles, crashes, scrapes, some riding with Dad standing by, some experimental forays – and then success! Rafi declared himself ready to do the school bike ride with everyone else.
All went well until it was time for the challenging aspect of the ride. This was along a narrow pathway cut into a steep riverbank. Rafi said, no, he wasn’t going to do that bit. He was told to ‘just give it a go’ by the instructor – who knew that Rafi had been riding for just four days.
Further refusals, coupled with some non-verbals: tears, lip trembles etc.
And at this point the instructor said, several times, I gather:
“You need to be more resilient.”
What does a child hear when we say this?
What Rafi heard was ‘Not only are you bad at bike riding, you also get upset too easily’.
He heard that he had failed on two counts rather than one. He heard that it was not okay to say ‘no’ when something didn’t feel safe – and not okay to feel upset when his right to say ‘no’ was dismissed. He heard ‘do as you are told’ and ‘stop crying’ and ‘you are being silly – not brave enough – not man enough’.
We had all kinds of good intentions for the phrase ‘ be resilient’ but over recent years it has begun to metamorphose into a code word for telling distressed kids to ‘toughen up’ or ‘stop crying’. The adult who says ‘be more resilient’ to a distressed child might feel they are making a positive contribution to a child’s mental health – yet, of course, they are doing no such thing. They are instead, attempting to bully the child into complying with their priorities. No learning for the child comes out of that – except perhaps learning that there are adults who can’t cope with a child saying no, or a child feeling a certain thing.
Rafi’s refusal to participate in the challenge activity was a skill-building opportunity: naming emotions, problem solving, learning to think from the perspective of the group. The emotion in this case was fear. So, a reality check – did the narrow path and the steep slope really present a danger to new rider? If yes, could the activity be modified to make it safer for him? If no, what ideas did he – and the group have - have for ensuring his non-participation didn’t disrupt the group?
(As for Rafi’s instructor, he may perhaps have learned that attempting to minimize what a child is feeling leads to bigger and bigger demonstrations of that feeling. Rafi eventually refused to get back on his bike at all, even to ride back the way he had come. An adult had to be deputized to ride slowly and painfully along behind him as he pushed his bike the several kilometres back to the school.)
So, too often urging a child to ‘be resilient’ prevents the development of the very emotional competence it was intended to promote. This is so very far from the intentions of the people who abstracted it from the child development research – but, in fact, the original research in which the term appeared was about a very particular and uncommon kind of child.
In extending the concept past the original group and attempting to apply it to normal populations have we made a mistake? I’m beginning to think so. The original definition of resilience was “the young person doing well in some sense in spite of having experienced a form of stress which in the population as a whole is known to carry a substantial risk of an adverse outcome” (Rutter, 1981). Here’s a 2005 definition from Fergus and Zimmerman: “Resilience refers to the process of overcoming the negative effects of risk exposure, coping successfully with traumatic experiences, and avoiding the negative trajectories associated with risks.”
What are we talking about here?
We are talking about the children who have survived cancer, or suffered the loss of a parent or a sibling, the children from war zones, the children who have been locked up in detention, the children who have suffered a serious injury, the children whose parents abuse alcohol and drugs, the children who have suffered abuse and domestic violence. All of these experiences generally lead to poorer life outcomes. But some of these children perform as well as their non-traumatized peers despite these experiences – they are ‘the resilient’.
How do they get that way? These children all have the benefit of parents who consistently, predictably and warmly respond. These are the kids whose parents, families, friends and teachers focus on giving them the ability to regulate their own emotions, to reflect on their actions, to stay focused on their goals. They live in safe, caring communities where they are protected. Simply, they are the kids who we give every chance of recovering. It is not rocket science.
The point is, the only truly resilient children we will ever meet are the children who have recovered enough from serious trauma to be mistaken for a child who has lived a blessed life.
I was saying this to a very good friend, who is the mother of just such a child. Felix missed two years of his childhood while his life was being saved with chemotherapy. He is a now a vibrantly-engaged-with-life little boy and a sought-after playmate. You would never guess now at those long months of pain where it hurt too much to walk or be cuddled. Now he is back at school, learning, playing, interchangeable with any other middle-class Australian child.
“It is interesting to hear you say that,” she said, smiling sadly, “because just last week Felix’s teacher told me that he needed to be more resilient.”
This appeared to mean that sometimes he gets cross when the teacher can’t see a reason for it. Sometimes Felix gets sad and the teacher hasn’t seen why, or feels that his feelings are bigger than the occasions warrant. Sometimes he doesn’t want to do as the teacher asks. None of these things are a sign that a child isn’t resilient. Felix is the living embodiment of resilience...and yes, sometimes he feels sad, he feels angry, he doesn’t want to comply.
We all feel these things. Sometimes a child feeling these things isn’t convenient for us – but all of these feelings are okay. All of these feelings are an opportunity for learning. There is a name in the literature for people who struggle with accepting emotions in others, and most particularly accepting emotions in children: dismissive. I’d like to see ‘dismissive’ gain the purchasing power that ‘resilience’ has.
I don’t see Rafi until several hours have passed. His excellent, caring principal has done her best to undo the hurt caused already and due to her input he’s moved on. But Rafi is going to be working with this instructor all week in a range of activities – so we workshop what he could say and do if it happens again. At least, I suggest things and he points out the errors in my thinking.
“Next time,” I say, “point out how important it is children listen to the messages from their body about whether a situation is safe or not. Say how important this is particularly for children in agriculture.”
“He thought it was safe and that I was wrong.”
“Tell him that he’s being dismissive of your perspective and your feelings.”
“I’d get in trouble for that.”
“Tell him that the word ‘resilient’ doesn’t mean what he thinks it means.”
“Oh, sure, Mum.”
Our conversation shifts to examining just why the instructor was so unable to deal with Rafi’s fear, and then his distress.
“Perhaps,” says Rafi, “he’s never learnt how to deal with feeling scared and sad himself, so he doesn’t like it when someone else is.”Mothers can get so cross with someone who hurts their child that their empathy is temporarily suspended.
“Aaah yes,” I say, “yes, you are probably right, the poor man.”
I know that dismissiveness is always a sign of damage from childhood – and typically, damage that person themselves often cannot recognize. Still, I’d like the rest of us to recognize dismissiveness, name it, and limit these people’s roles with children – because what they are do (and this is the best case scenario) is miss and so waste our children’s chances to learn how to process and use their emotions, to become self-regulating. So often they do this while chanting the word ‘resilience’ like a mantra... if we dismiss some of their emotions in the name of ‘demonstrating resilience’– forbid them, put them out of reach, disallow them – children can’t own and work and use and manage those feelings. I find this hard to forgive. But Rafi’s insight has empowered him to forgive even while he decides to be wary of contact, and he has no difficulty with the instructor for the rest of the week.
While Rafi was riding his bike, I was at a cutting-edge parenting talk on helping bush children make the tough transition to boarding school. The presenter’s focus was not on the overused, mispurposed, misunderstood ‘resilience’ but on ‘self-regulation’ – which, is of course, what this website seeks to promote too. In terms of the literature, self-regulation is wonderfully well supported!
Self-regulation is a composite word, and of its two parts, it is the word ‘self’ we need to pay most attention to. The self-regulating child is not the obedient child or the compliant child: but the child who is able to navigate their own emotions and those of others, to direct their own learning and set their own goals. When we demand a child demonstrate ‘resilience’ we are attempting to wrest control of that developing skillset from the child – their feelings, their opportunities to solve the problems presented by their feelings in that situation, to determine their own goals.
The misuse of the word ‘resilience’ is not just misleading and counter-productive. It has become a new way (a way that many adults think is acceptable) of telling kids they don’t measure up. It has become a word that allows the bullying of children – and even of adults – to happen in front of an audience. Time, and past time, for it to sink back into being used only how it was intended – to describe the adult or child who has managed to become ordinary despite adversity of an extraordinary kind.