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Thursday, August 6, 2015

When Resilience Runs Its Course

The impetus for this blog was an experience I just had with my youngest son at Cub Scout camp. It was a poignant lesson for me in the importance of reflection when we talk about resilience.  The whole grit movement is great. Finally something I heartily believe in, but was never able to quite articulate has been receiving its proper credit.  Additionally, I firmly believe grit, mental toughness, character, resilience, or whatever you label those qualities that allow us to succeed in the face difficulty because they are what have helped me succeed.  So naturally, I impart these lessons to my sons.  This is where this post begins.

One of the activities they do is a BMX bike ride on a dirt path.  There are few rules with the exception of take turns so that all get some time on the bikes.  The kids grab any bike they can get on and any helmet that fits.  There are some hills, turns, and shortcuts as the boys get a taste of that freedom born from controlling the bike along the path. My son has just started riding his bike at home.  He is six and sticks to the relatively flat pavement on his own Ninja Turtles bike.  It’s a little different than this experience.  Nevertheless he grabbed a bike and asked me to push so he could jump on and start peddling.  I felt proud as he raced down the first stretch.  My job was to go to the far turn to offer any help for the kids. I had just arrived when I saw Scott come around the corner and crash his bike.  He had started to go off the road and overcorrected; causing the handlebars to turn completely sideways.  The end result was the bike tipping forward to land on Scott. He has crashed his bike before and gotten right back up, so I was not very worried.  Then the other four bikes came around the corner and ran into and over Scott and his bike. I helped all those involved back to their bikes and the riding continued; including Scott who was in need of some Band-Aids when he decided to stop.

This scene (minus the running over) replayed itself a total of 12 times by the end of Scott’s turn!  I wish I could say I didn’t cringe each time it happened, but knew it was my duty as his parent to pick him up, brush him off, and tell him to get back on the bike.  In all honesty, the last four times I asked him if he still wanted to get back on the bike.  I tried to figure out what the problem was, but all I could see was the overcorrection leading to a crash.  At about the sixth crash, Scott looked up at me with tears streaming down his dirt caked face and kept repeating, “Daddy, I’m not doing anything wrong and I keep crashing. It’s not fair.”  My reply was that he must be doing something, but we just don’t know what it is so we had to figure it out. After his last crash, knowing time was almost up (and my heart breaking just a little), I asked Scott if he just wanted to call it a day and walk the bike back.  This time his answer was different. He wiped the tears away and said, “I got it. The wheel turns too easy and too far.” Looking at him and thinking of how proud I was because of his resilience I replied; “You fell a lot.  You got one more try in you?”  He looked at me and said; “I got it Daddy. I got it. Can you give me a push?” I watched him as his back left my hand and he took on the small hills. I watched him as he rode all the way to the end of the course, got of his bike, did a fist pump, and gave me a “thumbs up” with a big, dirty smile.

Take Away
I learned a big lesson that day courtesy of my son.  How often can we as adults ask children to keep getting up if there is no solution to their struggle?  Should they keep getting up? Absolutely!  But, how often can they continue to follow that age old saying that is indicative of success; fall down seven times, get up eight.  Our children are constantly surrounded by a society that offers instant gratification by ensuring the easy road is always open.  Couple that with a growing sense of moral relativism and we are crippling our children by not teaching them to endure hardship not for the sake of enduring, rather for the sake of learning a better way.  Endurance or resilience is only as good as the education or reflection that allows a person to learn ffrom the experience.  Every one of us can only be resilient for so long before breaking.  The trick is to reflect on the problem and adjust our approach before that moment arises because once a person has quit they very rarely have any meaningful reflection.  It becomes excuses for failure rather than ways to succeed the next time.

As the adults and educators it is our duty to stress that reflection piece.  That comes in letting our children and students experience failure as long as we continue to guide them through the process.  That is not to say we should take the sting out of the failure, but instead encourage children to keep pushing through as they question what is occurring and how to make it better.  Trust me, I wanted to make it better for my son as he struggled.  I even caved after the last crash, but in the end it was my son who taught me.  Next time, maybe I will help him continue his struggle and focus more on the reflection.  It is hard when we are personally attached to the situation, but as we all know; resilience is key and a major indicator of long-term success no matter the odds.

It Comes Down To This

As they grow older, I want my sons, when confronted with the question; “Why do you always take the harder of two roads?” to answer; “Why do you always assume I see two roads?” If we really want to teach resilience we need to confront the urge to take the path of least resistance.  That is only done by focusing on the bigger picture; being purposeful, acting with integrity, and building character.


  1. Big lesson, big man.
    I'm astounded at how often I've seen parents (myself included) give in to the temptation to "take away" their kids' problems. When I look in my own rear view mirror and humility really kicks in, I'm made aware that it's just parental laziness on my part. The lack I had growing up actually proved to be an asset in many cases - I was forced to "make due with what I've got on hand". (That's led me to the end of many a roll of duct tape, BTW).

    A friend of mine has a home theater company and was asked to install 3 flat panel monitors in a guy's house. One TV for each of his 3 kids, who each had their own room. Each kid had their own Playstation and the same games. "Must be nice." He thought.

    "That's terrible!" I replied. Not only has he spent 3 times the money, he's ROBBED his kids of learning priceless lessons about making the most of limited resources, collaboration, cooperation, etc. AND has given them the "gift" of entitlement.

    Nothing wrong with wanting more for our kids than we had growing up, but the lessons you've given your boys (and they seem to occasionally reciprocate, QED) clearly demonstrate that often, less really is more and one more try may just do the trick. Can't put a price tag on those. Nice. Way to lead.

    I grew up hearing the lie "practice makes perfect". But, if you practice the same thing the wrong way over and over, you're grounding yourself in "imperfect". Good to see Scott practicing "innovation until perfection". Keep persevering Young Jones!

    1. Well said sir! I especially like the take on "innovation until perfection."