I organized a whitewater rafting trip for my son’s scout troop recently. While it’s true that whitewater rafting can be dangerous (our outfitter required that all participants and their parents read and sign a 4-page waiver, which warned of disaster, both natural and man-made, up to and including death), this particular trip was designed for first-timers and seemed to be more mild than wild. Still, there were opportunities for the kids to test themselves and, as the day progressed, I found myself considering what parents can do to toughen up their kids. Here are steps to building confidence and resilience.
Acquire basic skills.
Learning to swim, ride a bicycle, read a map, answer the telephone, conduct a business transaction (buy a Bionicle at the toy store or order a milkshake at the soda shop, for example), and talk to adults. Mastering a skill will typically involve overcoming a fear or dealing with some real or perceived personal obstacle (lack of balance, soft voice, or spatial skill deficiency) so toughness can begin to be cultivated. Being able to navigate day-to-day kid life and occasional-to-frequent interaction with adults can then lead to pursuing even greater challenges.
Try something new.
Being a novice at anything, whether it’s rock climbing, speaking in front of a large group, communicating in a foreign language, or playing soccer, can be scary, humbling, and frustrating. Moving from newbie status to an advanced level builds confidence. Kids can learn that it’s okay not to be perfect the first time, getting advice from experts can be useful, and physical and mental challenges can be overcome.
Take beginner steps and build to greater things.
I was surprised at the number of kids, especially those with a penchant for the outdoors and adventure, who had never been canoeing, much less whitewater rafting. Next year’s outing might involve learning basic water safety, paddling, and navigational skills either instead of or in preparation for whitewater rapids.
Ditto for other activities: learn to ride a bike on flat land before progressing to hills; run a mile before training for a 10K.
Having a goal stimulates internal motivation. Younger kids may not have the long-term perspective needed to persevere through difficulties, but older ones (perhaps 10 years and older) can see that sacrifice now will yield rewards later. Note that these goals should be those embraced by kids, not their parents.
Admit and face fears.
Expressing a fear is often the first step in confronting and overcoming it. But kids don’t have to be shoved out of their comfort zones. During a joint Girl Scout/Explorer Scout outing as a teen, I was too scared to leap off a mountain cliff and rappel to the bottom; the leaders encouraged me but respected my decision not to participate. Nearly all of the other kids (from the Explorer troop associated with the Fire Department) had practiced on a multi-story fire tower, I learned later, giving them a familiarity and confidence I had not yet acquired. But, about 5 years later, I found myself on a ropes course. There, I climbed a ladder rope, walked on narrow rope bridge to a ledge, and then rappelled to the ground with absolutely no fear.
Parents can model this behavior. Avoid saying things like, “this is perfect, except…”, “I wish the weather was _____”(“sunny” if it is overcast; “cool” if it is hot) Toughness is instilled when kids learn to adapt to their circumstances rather than expressing mild discontent or expend effort trying to control or reshape every situation.
Assess and manage risk.
Toughness means being able to walk away from dangerous situations with no regrets. If knowledge, skills, and experiences are built progressively (with appropriate safety discussions), then kids can learn to recognize problems, sort through probable consequences (if I slip, how far will I fall?), and make informed decisions. Being tough doesn’t require being foolish.
I don’t recommend being overwhelmed with a totally new or nearly impossible challenge. But, at some point, willingly or unwittingly, your child will him/herself in a situation that requires some skill or piece of knowledge or type of equipment or something that he/she doesn’t have. Going beyond perceived capabilities is what takes someone to the next level. At this point, your child (or you) won’t feel very tough but will be.