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A version of this chapter appears in the Handbook of Resilience in Children edited - page 13 / 18

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R. Brooks:  The Power of Parenting                                                                              

avoid a task, they are more likely to develop a self-defeating attitude towards mistakes.  In contrast, if they witness their parents use mistakes as opportunities for learning, they are more likely to do the same.

The second question also deserves serious consideration by parents.  Many well-meaning parents become anxious and frustrated with their children’s mistakes.  Given these feelings they may say or do things that contribute to their children fearing rather than learning from setbacks.  For instance, parental frustration may lead to such comments as: “Were you using your brains?” or “You never think before you act!” or “I told you it wouldn’t work!”  These and similar remarks serve to corrode a child’s sense of dignity and self-esteem.

No one likes to make mistakes or fail, but parents can use their children’s mistakes as teachable moments.  They can engage their children in a discussion of what they can do differently next time to maximize chances for success.  Using empathy, they can refrain from saying things that they would not want said to them (e.g., how many parents would find it helpful if their spouse said to them, “Were you using your brains?”).  

Parents must also have realistic expectations for their children and not set the bar too high or too low.  If the bar is set too high, children will continually experience failure and are likely to feel they are a disappointment to their parents.  Setting the bar too low may rob children of experiences that test their abilities and their capacity to learn to manage setbacks.  Very low expectations also convey the message, “We don’t think you are capable.”

If parents are to reinforce a resilient mindset in their children, their words and actions must convey a belief that we can learn from mistakes.  The fear of making mistakes and being humiliated is one of the most potent obstacles to learning, one that is incompatible with a resilient lifestyle.

8.  Developing Responsibility, Compassion, and a Social Conscience by Providing Children with Opportunities to Contribute.   Parents often ask what they can do to foster an attitude of responsibility, caring, and compassion in their children.  One of the most effective ways of nurturing responsibility is offering children opportunities to help others.  When children are enlisted in helping others and engaging in responsible behaviors, parents communicate trust in them and faith in their ability to handle a variety of tasks.  In turn, involvement in these tasks reinforces several key characteristics of a resilient mindset including empathy, a sense of satisfaction in the positive impact of one’s behaviors, a more confident outlook as islands of competence are displayed, and the use of problem-solving skills.

Too often parents label the first responsibilities they give children “chores.”  Most children and adults are not thrilled about doing chores, whereas almost every child from an early age appears motivated to help others.  The presence of this “helping drive” is supported by research in which adults were asked to reflect on their school experiences and to write about one of their most positive moments in school that boosted their self-esteem and motivation (Brooks, 1991).  The most frequently cited memory was being asked to assist others (e.g., tutoring a younger child, painting murals in the school, running the film projector, passing out the milk and straws).

To highlight the importance of teaching responsibility and compassion, I typically ask parents how their children would answer the following questions:

“What are the ways in which your parents show responsibility?”

“What behaviors have you observed in your parents that were not responsible?”

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