When my wife and I took our 7-year-old son to climb a 900-foot piece of rock near our home in Colorado, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
We’d done a 600-foot climb the previous year, and he had loved it. This one, called the “Standard Route,” up the Third Flatiron in Boulder, was marginally tougher — shaped like a steep, rocky slide that’s attached to a skyscraper.
Yes, he told my wife the night before, and again that morning, that he was too scared to do it. She worried that we were pushing him, but I insisted we go ahead. And the kid seemed confident once we all got to the foot of the route.
Alas, it did not go well. The angle was a little too steep and the whole thing took about two hours longer than I’d planned. A cloud of bugs at the top was almost intolerable and the rappel off the back involved an uncomfortable mess of limbs and ropes pinning my son against the rock.
“This is the worst day of my life!” he screamed at one particularly hard moment.
It wasn’t our first Daddy-inspired mishap, and I can’t see it being our last. I was raised to believe that challenging a child is a good thing — my father always called it “building character.”
But where is the line between being scarred for life and sufficiently scuffed up to build resilience? It’s a choice parents weigh every day — when to cuddle them if they scrape their knee, and when to give a dose of hardship so that they become tough enough to take on the road ahead.
To get clarity on how or where I may have gone wrong, I asked a few experts for advice.
What is resilience — and what builds it?
Resilience is a popular term in modern psychology that, put simply, refers to the ability to recover and move on from adverse events, failure or change.
“We don’t call it ‘character’ anymore,” said Jelena Kecmanovic, director of Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute. “We call it the ability to tolerate distress, the ability to tolerate uncertainty.”
Studies suggest that resilience in kids is associated with things like empathy, coping skills and problem-solving, though this research is often done on children in extreme circumstances and may not apply to everybody. Still, many experts are starting to see building resilience as an effective way to prevent youth anxiety and depression.
“I think a lot of kids are really cautious — maybe overcautious — today,” said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a developmental psychologist at Temple University, an expert in play and author of “Becoming Brilliant: What Science Tells Us About Raising Successful Children.” “We live in a society that tells us pretty consistently that if we don’t do well, we are failures.”
One solution, according to experts, is to encourage risk-taking and failure, with a few guardrails around physical and emotional safety. For instance, it’s important that children have a loving and supportive foundation before they go out and take risks that build resilience. And they need to know that they will be loved even if they fail.
Find the difficulty sweet spot.
“Challenges” are challenging only if they are hard. Child psychologists often talk about the “zone of proximal development” — the area between what a child can do without any help and what a child can’t do, even with help. My son can learn to throw a baseball but probably not a split-fingered fastball, even if his coach is Clayton Kershaw.
“You set the bar where he has to reach to grab it, but not beyond their reach,” said Dr. Ken Ginsburg, founder of the Center for Parent and Teen Communication at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of the book “Congrats — You’re Having a Teen!” “If you set the bar above where he can reasonably reach it, he will feel like a failure. And more significantly, like he failed you.”
How do you find the bar? Dr. Ginsburg recommends asking your child: “What do you think you can handle? What do you think you can handle with me by your side?”
Let their interests guide you.
The best way to build resilience is doing something you are motivated to do, no matter your age. For parents, that means listening carefully to what excites your kid as opposed to forcing them to do what gets you excited.
“Your adventure might not be his adventure,” Dr. Ginsburg said.
Experts say the more activities children have exposure to, the better. Sports are an ideal place to learn resilience, because, by definition, one team or participant will fail. Schoolwork and music are other ways, especially when children are young and the stakes are lower.
Don’t always give them an out.
Many of us remember hating the first few days of summer camp, hunkered down in a musty cabin, so homesick we wanted to cry. But a few days of tie-dyeing and canoeing later, Dr. Hirsh-Pasek said, it became a treasured childhood experience. Sometimes parents just have to lay down the law and force children to break out of their comfort zone, she added.
“If you don’t persevere through something that’s a little bit hard, sometimes you never get the benefits,” she said.
But don’t expect your kid to appreciate your efforts, Dr. Kecmanovic said: “They will scream ‘I hate you, you are the worst person in the world, this is the worst day of my life.’” But those feelings (hopefully) will fade, replaced by pride of achievement.
Fear of a rock climb is fine. Fear of communication is not.
My little misadventure with my son had some healthy elements, Dr. Ginsburg said: being outdoors, getting my boy to stretch his abilities past what he thinks he can do and celebrating his accomplishment. But one thing gave him pause.
“What I wouldn’t love is if your son felt as if he couldn’t say it was more than he could comfortably stretch into,” he warned. Or that “he had to fit into a box of presumed masculinity as defined by his father.”
I was excited to share an activity that I find meaningful with my kid. But it’s also possible I pressured him into pushing his limits, and he went along just to please his old man.
“It’s about emotional literacy and the fact that he doesn’t have to consider your feelings when he’s sharing his own,” Dr. Ginsburg said. “Like, he doesn’t have to worry that he might lose you.”
Now that the ordeal is over, he’s proud of what he did — he still brags about it, and smiles in the car when the mountain comes into view. In the end, I can’t see changing my parenting strategy that much. If my son has one truly empowering experience for every debacle, I’d count that as a success.
But it’s crucial that I show (and tell) him that no matter what he does, he won’t lose my love and respect. And, as he gets older, I need to ensure our adventures are challenges he wants to conquer as much as I do. My kid loves the water, so maybe next time we’ll try a nice day of kayaking instead.