How To Raise A Kid Who Can Survive Life's Biggest Challenges

Imagine when they realize just how strong they are.

little kid pondering questions not receiving the answer JNemchinova | Canva

Everyone wants to protect their kids from harm, but that protection should also include emotional harm. Thankfully, we are more mindful than ever about the negative impact of bullying and criticism on a child's blossoming self-esteem. As parents, we work hard to raise children with bold confidence and self-esteem fully intact.

But have we gone too far in protecting our children from any feeling that causes them frustration, worry, or anxiety? Have we started protecting them to the point that we are now undermining their emotional resilience? 


It's one thing to protect our kids from overt cruelty and abuse; it's another to shield our children from any situation that makes them feel uncomfortable.

Why? Because kids need to realize getting what you want doesn't always come easily. That's the best way to raise an emotionally resilient child. Of course, this reality flies in the face of our society's culture of "star worship," and our belief certain people are "just" gifted.

That doesn't mean we throw our children to the wolves. Instead, we need to walk by their side as they learn just how strong they can be. 

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Too many kids and their parents look at success as a magical thing some people are either meant for, or they're not. "If I'm really 'smart,' why don't I understand this as easily as my others, why don’t I do as well as she does? — I guess I’m NOT smart after all." Right there, a wound occurs in the child’s self-regard. Yet, the truth is — success doesn’t have much to do with innate intelligence or talent. Time and again, children with fewer "natural gifts" excel beyond the effortlessly smart and talented kids later in life because the first group doesn't give up easily. In short: perseverance trumps innate talent.

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Carol Dweck, PhD, calls this either a "fixed mindset" or a "growth mindset." A person with a "fixed" mindset believes I am who I am, and there’s no way I can be different. A person with a "growth" mindset believes, "If I want to (with effort), I can get better at this".


The difference between a fixed and growth mindset is your tolerance for frustration, mistakes, and surprises.

For most of us — It's uncomfortable to think, "I made a mistake." (We get red ink marks for those in school, don’t we? We get in trouble for those at work.) I know it's not easy to watch them flounder, but you must let your children feel uncomfortable, Mom and Dad!

If they can learn to bear the temporary uncomfortable feeling of being "wrong," long enough to get curious about their missteps, your kids can develop a "growth mindset." The "growth mindset" welcomes ongoing discomfort and dissatisfaction with some excitement, pleasure, and satisfaction mixed in. If your child wants to learn to play the violin, for example, the whole family is going to suffer, and suffer, and suffer, until he becomes skilled. At that point, everyone else can enjoy the improved playing. He, of course, with his growth mindset, keeps working to improve bit by bit, wanting to perform even better!


Encouraging her daughter with love

Photo: Art_Photo via Shutterstock

Here's another example of what happens when children get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable. High schoolers were offered one of three things to read before taking a science test. One group was given information about the achievements of famous scientists, like Albert Einstein and Marie Curie, similar to the textbook material they see every day. A second group was given a story about the personal lives and struggles of the same scientists. A third group received info about those scientists' professional disappointments and frustrations.

After the test, the first group reacted to a poor grade by saying, "I’ll never be a scientist anyway!" But, the second and third groups were more likely to say things like, "I guess I could have studied more," or "I can do better next time."


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Dr. Dweck talks about this as the "power of yet": Your daughter isn’t good at math… yet. Your son can’t draw well… yet. You can’t figure out the computer… yet! But "[if you] improve by 1 percent a day, in just 70 days, you’re twice as good." That's the growth mindset advantage.

Ultimately, we don’t do our kids any favors by giving them prizes just for showing up. We also don’t help our children by telling them how smart they are — (even if they are intelligent) — and we don't help them grow by letting them bail out of anything that pushes their comfort zone. Our kids need us to teach them the value of staying with something difficult.



It's like the story The Little Engine That Could. What a great template for the "growth" mindset. The Little Engine has a mission — to pull the train full of toys over the hill so all the children can have a happy holiday. He gets there with a great deal of uncomfortable effort, saying all the way, "I think I can. I think I can. I think I can." Nobody, not even he, knows if he can make it, until he crests the hill, when his chugging turns into "I knew I could! I knew I could! I knew I could!"


After all the hard work, frustration, and dedication, your children will feel joyous to realize they can produce successful results all on their own!

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Cheryl Gerson is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and Board Certified Diplomate, in private practice in New York City.