For most of my life, I thought of myself as a tough person. I met challenges, I met deadlines, I survived a physical assault. I worked hard, I played hard, and I kept going. And, for most of my life, I thought that was a good thing. That being tough was a badge of honor that I could – and should – pin to my chest.
Last fall, though, adrift in some difficult emotional waters, I confided to a friend that I was surprised I was feeling so overwhelmed by trying to take care of two children under two. After all, I said, I always thought I was so tough.
“You are tough,” she replied, “but you’re not very resilient. And being resilient is what it takes to raise two babies at once.”
At the time, I didn’t really understand what she meant. Weren’t toughness and resilience the same?
Not by a long shot, as it turns out.
Toughness, as I’ve come to understand it, is about the façade we present to the world: the exterior mask that may hide the internal turmoil. Toughness helps you keep from crying when a nasty schoolmate makes fun of your outfit. Toughness lets you go back to work, still black-and blue, bones broken, in the same neighborhood where you were recently attacked. Toughness is about the steely look distracting from the nails bitten down to the bloody nub. Toughness is more about appearances than about feelings.
Resilience, on the other hand, is about actual recovery. Resilience is about integrating the negative experience, dealing with it, and bouncing back anyway. Resilience is one of those clown-shaped punching bags with the weight in the bottom: no matter how many times you hit it, it pops right back up.
In Chapter 5 of Raising Happiness, Christine Carter suggests that parents can help train their children to be emotionally literate by establishing secure attachments with them and by teaching them to deal with negative emotions.
The first part of that equation made perfect sense to me and felt natural to my parenting approach – as, I bet, it does to most of you. I try to be sensitive to my sons and their needs. I try to respond consistently to those needs. I spend lots of time with them. I listen to them and talk with them (even if Tiny Baby still isn’t the world’s greatest conversationalist). The boys have secure attachments with me, with Husband, with their extended family, and with a handful of other beloved caregivers.
But the second part? Major A-ha moment.
According to Carter, who cites the work of noted researcher Dr. John Gottman:
[E]motion coaching is the key to raising happy, resilient, and well-adjusted kids. [Gottman's] research shows that it is not enough to be a warm, engaged, and loving parent. Warmth and attention foster certain aspects of emotional literacy, but they don’t necessarily teach kids how to deal with negative feelings such as sadness and frustration. Emotion coaching does. The reality, of course, is that life inevitably involves pain and suffering, disappointment and failure, loss and betrayal. Much as we would like to, we cannot protect our children from these things. We can, however, teach them to cope with the difficult and often painful emotions that arise out of life’s less happy moments.
This paragraph stopped me in my tracks.
I had an idyllic childhood. I loved my family (still do, in fact). I had a handful of good friends. I had many of those secure attachments Carter writes about. But it was also a period of time that didn’t ask much of me in terms of resilience. I experienced little in the way of “pain and suffering, disappointment and failure, loss and betrayal.” And so I never really developed the emotional skills to deal with them when they did occur.
And – the A-ha moment continues – I realize that, rather than teaching my own sons how to cope with negative feelings, I’ve been trying to recreate my childhood for them and, in doing so, offer them a world in which negative feelings are few and far between.
I’ve been trying to create a perfect world for them to live in rather than teach them how to live in the imperfect one we’ve got.
I suppose there are worse crimes than trying to manufacture a conflict-free existence for one’s children, but I’m ready to embark on a (hopefully) less Sisyphean task: I’ll try to teach myself, and then my kids, the resilience we all need to stay afloat in these choppy seas.
Are you tough? Are you resilient? If you have children, how do you teach them to be resilient?