Tag Archives: resilience

A little weaker, a little stronger: Parenting lessons learned from falling down (and getting back up again)

CrutchLike most busy parents, if someone had asked me how my family would survive without my constant, direct involvement, I would have shuddered at the mere thought.

Impossible, I’d have thought. No carpools? No meal planning, grocery buying, cooking, laundry, sweeping? No one to run to the dry cleaners or bank on the way to or from work? No quick pharmacy stop at lunchtime? Who would rustle the kids out of bed and down to breakfast while my husband walked the dog and made their lunches? Who would trade-off with him for teacher meetings, school performances and piano lessons?

Certain unmitigated disaster. 

And yet.

Three months ago, I got off a chairlift and my life took a turn for the worse.

Literally.

After 30 something years of skiing without incident, I managed to zig where I should have zagged. I wasn’t taking chances. I wasn’t speeding or showing off. Just plain bad luck. And like many accidents, this one really wasn’t my fault — the binding on my ski didn’t release as it was supposed to and my body tumbled and twisted while my foot stayed locked into the ski. Ouch.

But as I’ve told my girls many times, it doesn’t matter if an accident is your fault or not – the damage is done.

In spite of this, I feel pretty damned lucky in the grand scheme of things. I managed to sever the anterior cruciate ligament and shred up the cartilage in my right knee, but no bones broke. I didn’t injure my spinal cord or suffer a brain injury or damage an eye. I didn’t have a terrible disease or a degenerative condition. There are a lot of things that even the most talented doctors and skilled surgeons cannot fix. I’ve worked really hard to focus on that kind of gratitude these past few months.

Let’s just say it hasn’t always been easy.

First I had to recover from the initial injury, go to physio and regain some strength and range of motion. Seven weeks later I had surgery to repair the damage. Back to square one. Because my doctor elected to repair my damaged cartilage alongside the ligament, I needed to have my knee immobilized for six straight weeks afterwards. As a super busy working mom of three, being relegated to crutches and prohibited from driving proved extremely difficult.

Formerly the catalyst that got our kids moving and our family organized, I was suddenly totally helpless. Even worse, I needed them to do stuff for me.

I couldn’t make dinner. Or run for the telephone when it rang. Or answer the door. Or walk the dog my kids had begged for but mostly forsaken. Balanced on two crutches, I couldn’t even carry a pitcher of milk from the fridge to the table.

I depended entirely on the extreme kindness of my husband, three daughters, parents, wonderful friends and co-workers. They brought me meals, did my groceries, walked my dog, shlepped my children around. I got lifts to and from work, physio and doctor appointments. They cheered me up with phone calls, text messages and Facebook posts.

I quickly learned what it meant to be handicapped (albeit temporarily). Even the smallest task took planning and enormous effort. For the first time in my life, I knew fear. I was scared to do simple things, like take a shower, or descend the front steps of our house. A sudden snowfall prevented me from leaving home for a day, lest I slip and fall on the ice. I became suddenly aware of the steps up into a store, the lack of elevators in a building, the difficulty of carrying my laptop, purse and lunch to work while on crutches.

All the things I used to do for my family fell to my husband and kids. At least initially, I couldn’t do groceries or laundry, cook or wipe the crumbs off the counter. I didn’t go down to our basement level laundry room for weeks. For a long time, I couldn’t easily get into each of my daughters’ rooms to kiss them good night or lie in their beds chatting in the dark before they drifted off to sleep. All our old patterns, habits and cherished routines fell by the wayside while my body healed itself.

This interruption of their lives made me sadder than anything. I hated not being able to go to them when they needed me. I resented my vulnerabilities.  One particularly bad night, after my girls were asleep and my husband was out for a work-related dinner, I lay awake in serious pain with the frightening realization that I had somehow left my medication and the telephones down in the kitchen. I stubbornly refused to wake my kids to help me, but I also didn’t have the strength to safely manage the stairs. I stared at a page in my book for a couple of hours in a fruitless attempt to distract myself until Martin came home.

I like to think I’ll never forget how humbling it was to be helpless. We take our strong bodies for granted. Like all privileges, good health is rarely noticed until it is gone. And when that happens it is truly shocking. Quite the life lesson. Here are some of the other things I’ve learned in these trying couple of months:

My kids can do a heck of a lot more than I thought. Like laundry. And making their own lunches. And putting their own selves to bed. If they unload the dishwasher and put stuff away in different places than I do, that’s not the end of the world.  They now set the dinner table, make salads and side dishes. There is less groaning about it than there used to be, because they knew they had to pitch in and help. My challenge is not giving in to the backslide now that I am off my crutches and moving around better. Just because I can do all those things for them again doesn’t mean I should.

I don’t need to be the centre of my family’s universe. Wow, what a profound relief. My girls aren’t preschoolers anymore. They can plan meals and organize their own school uniforms without me. It may not be the food I’d choose, and their shirts may be wrinklier than I’d like, but that’s OK too. The world didn’t explode because my husband bought the wrong kind of milk or heated up frozen pizzas for dinner on consecutive nights. Although feeling so needed clearly struck some deep-seated maternal chord in me, I’ve learned that overly competent, highly controlling parents can undermine their kids’ need to develop some independence.

Our ability to cope with stress is directly related to the support we get. I have some of the most wonderful friends around. I can still count on my mom. Even my father, who is himself physically handicapped and recovering from spinal surgery, was able to help me with lifts around town. All of this brought me to tears at times. I rarely had to ask for anything. The pale outlines of the proverbial village made themselves visible to me in the streets of suburban Montreal. Even as I benefited from all this help, I’ve silently committed to paying all of this forward whenever possible.

We are more fragile than we think. Even when we are in tip-top physical condition, a wrong move, errant cell or careless turn can change everything. But remaining truly appreciative of the health we have is difficult to sustain. I want to remember, but I also know I will forget in time. (I’ve forgotten it before, after all). That taken-for-grantedness is part of the human makeup, perhaps a psychological response to fading novelty.

But I am also keenly aware that some people, like my dad, don’t get better. A temporary handicap is one thing, a permanent one (or a degenerative condition) is quite another.  I’ve cultivated a deeper regard for the challenges those kinds of health problems pose for the people who live with them, especially those who are parents of small children and must shift attention from their health problems to the needs of their kids. That is a tremendously difficult thing to do, and they need all of our support. So I hope a part of me never forgets to be thankful for my newly regained ability to go downstairs for my forgotten bottle of pills.

But we are also so much stronger. I never thought I could do this. That my family could do this. I had no idea. With the right kind of support and infrastructure, we can manage way more than we realize. We learn to accept what can’t be changed, to triage, identify the big stuff, make compromises, look to other things for solace and encouragement. I like to think my girls saw us react to a bad situation with humour and level-headed planning (and OK, also some well-timed cursing and the occasional bout of tears).

And though I’m relieved to be on the other side of this (though months of physical rehab are still ahead of me), it’s encouraging to believe my knee was the only thing weakened.

 

 

Contribution: How doing things for others builds kids’ resilience

Kids Save the WorldThese three weeks before the official holiday break are particularly stressful. It’s a perfect storm of cold weather, 4 p.m. sunsets (and 7:30 a.m. sunrises), school and work deadlines, end of year concerts, holiday parties, gift buying, list-making and baking. Tempers are short, emotions easily ruffled and wallets depleted.

So I figured this was a perfect time to write about one of the most overlooked of the 7 Cs of resilience: contribution. Because kids really can help make the world a better place.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “when children realize that the world is a better place because they are in it, they will take actions and make choices that improve the world. They will also develop a sense of purpose to carry them through future challenges.”

Wow. There’s a lot of juicy stuff there to think about: doing things for others, resisting self-absorption and narcissism, a deep connection to a cause or community, empathy, sensitivity, creativity, purpose. It’s so important that it’s incorporated into the last step of Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Step Program: to help others who are battling alcohol addiction.

These are wonderful qualities in any human being, and it’s easy to appreciate how they will improve the world around them. The brilliance of this particular aspect of resilience is that they also benefit the person who embodies them. It’s not entirely selfless to be selfless. It makes kids and adults not only better, but also stronger. More able to resist the temptations and poor choices everyone has to confront from time to time.

I’m not talking about metaphysical connections or anything spiritual here – the power of contribution is the groundedness it offers. It lets kids feel they personally have something to offer the world, to make something better in some way, however small.

So what does contribution actually look like, and how can we help our kids build it? Most people will initially think about charitable acts: collecting items for Christmas hampers to the poor, visiting the elderly, working at a soup kitchen, being a Big Brother or Big Sister to a younger child in need. These things are amazing, and certainly important to the people whom they benefit, as well as to children who learn the pleasure of giving, (as well as challenging the sense of entitlement many kids seem to carry around with them).

But these activities may only happen once in a while, or you may be looking for something closer to home. In my opinion, there are many wonderful opportunities within the family. Regular chores (for which they are not paid) help a child develop a sense of contribution to the family, even if they grumble about folding laundry, setting the dinner table or walking the dog. Helping a younger sibling with homework gives them a sense of pride, deepens family relationships, and takes some of the heat off parents.

Little kids can contribute to the family as well, though sometimes that “help” requires a bit of patience. Counting out cutlery for the dinner table. Keeping their room tidy. Feeding the family pet. Start small and build on them as they get older.

They can also plenty of ways to contribute time and energy for their schools, soccer teams, churches, synagogues, mosques or temples.

The thing about contribution is that it requires a bit of commitment. It isn’t always glamourous and it isn’t always fun. So prepare yourself for some eye-rolling and attitude. But stick it out: the pay-off is in the difference it makes, short and long term.

True grit: check your kid’s resilience with this quick test

Tough Afternoon

We'll get 'em next time.

Some kids seem to sail through life’s ups and downs without too much effort. When crappy stuff comes their way, they pick themselves up, maybe cry a few tears and slap on a couple of bandaids, then they keep on going.

Other kids, not so much. When faced with stress or adversity, no matter how big or small, kids in this group tend to falter. Can’t cope. Their grades suffer. Friendships languish. Maybe they have trouble sleeping or eating. Perhaps they get a lot of headaches or stomachaches.

Experts have tried to predict the things that make any individual more likely to fall in the first group — the resilient group — than the second one. I’ve written about resilience here a number of times (see here and here for two recent examples), and it’s pretty clear that it’s a complex topic. Last week, I wrote about the way in which control fits into resilience, and referenced the famous “marshmellow experiment.”

After reading that post, a colleague sent me a link to an interesting New York Times Magazine article called “What if the Secret to Success is Failure?” In this long, sometimes tedious piece, the principals of some New York City area schools experiment with different character-building programs in order to boost long term achievement. It turns out that IQ scores alone aren’t very good predictors of who will go on to college, who will actually finish their degrees.

We know that character is one of the 7 C’s of resilience, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. But it’s always been notoriously difficult to measure. That is, until a professor named Angela Duckworth, then a doctoral student, sought some way to make sense of the qualities that go beyond IQ: “People who accomplished great things, she noticed, often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission, whatever the obstacles and however long it might take. ” (New York Times Magazine, Sept. 14, 2011).

She named this quality “grit” and came up with a scale for measuring it. It’s deceptively simple, only takes a few minutes to fill out, and relies on the usually notoriously unreliable method of self-reporting. But when she tested it, she found that it was powerfully predictive of success. She tested it on college students and found that those who scored high on the Grit Scale had higher GPA’s, even if they initially had lower college board tests. She tested it on West Point cadets, and it turned out to be the most accurate predictor of who finished the grueling program.

When they tested students in elementary and high schools, they found that while IQ scores predicted scores on government achievement tests, the Grit Scale was the better predictor of report card grades. Makes sense, since those latter grades include finishing homework projects, in-class participation and behaviour. And that has a lot more to do with self-control and character.

How well would your child do on the Grit Scale? Before you take the test with them, consider that it might be most helpfully read as a rubric of skills you want to help your child develop. A low grit score does not spell the death knell for your child’s aspirations! This scale is used by schools to help build on those areas of weakness. You can improve their self-control, their self-discipline, etc. So take the final number with a grain of salt and see it as an opportunity.

Short Grit Scale

Directions for taking the Grit Scale: Please respond to the following 8 items. Be honest – there are no right or wrong answers!

1. New ideas and projects sometimes distract me from previous ones.*

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

2. Setbacks don’t discourage me.

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

3. I have been obsessed with a certain idea or project for a short time but later lost interest.*

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

4. I am a hard worker.

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

5. I often set a goal but later choose to pursue a different one.*

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

6. I have difficulty maintaining my focus on projects that take more than a few months to complete.*

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

7. I finish whatever I begin.

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

8. I am diligent.

Very much like me

Mostly like me

Somewhat like me

Not much like me

Not like me at all

Scoring:

1. For questions 2, 4, 7 and 8 assign the following points:

5 = Very much like me

4 = Mostly like me

3 = Somewhat like me

2 = Not much like me

1 = Not like me at all

2. For questions 1, 3, 5 and 6 assign the following points:

1 = Very much like me

2 = Mostly like me

3 = Somewhat like me

4 = Not much like me

5 = Not like me at all

Add up all the points and divide by 8. The maximum score on this scale is 5 (extremely gritty), and the lowest score on this scale is 1 (not at all gritty).

Grit Scale citation:

Duckworth, A.L, & Quinn, P.D. (2009). Development and validation of the Short Grit Scale (Grit-S).  Journal of Personality Assessment, 91, 166-174. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/Duckworth%20and%20Quinn.pdf

Duckworth, A.L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M.D., & Kelly, D.R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 9, 1087-1101. http://www.sas.upenn.edu/~duckwort/images/Grit%20JPSP.pdf