If You Lean On Someone Too Much, Someday You’ll Fall Over

How to teach kids the critical faculty of resilience and the ability to stand unassisted on their own two feet

image of a strong small kid in a red t shirt for article by Larry G. Maguire

Photo by Ben White on Unsplash

How to teach kids the critical faculty of resilience and the ability to stand unassisted on their own two feet

My eldest son was stuck. He had a maths problem that he couldn’t solve. Or rather, he had a maths problem he believed he couldn’t solve. It was something related to the order of operations of integers (snore-fest).

It was the same basic structure as the previous five questions he had solved, but in this case, he had found a reason not to do the sum. It was Friday afternoon; there was an invitation to a friends house, messages on his phone and a variety of other things which were competing for his attention. No wonder then that the problem arose.

I was in the gym at the time, and he had decided that he needed my help. So with Dad absent, he put the books away, maths problem unsolved. “I’ll finish it tomorrow”, he said, and off he went about his primary business of having fun.

In principle, I have no problem with his decision. He’s thirteen years old, and his primary job is to have fun. Academic work, stuff that in an ordinary sense doesn’t excite him, should come second. I’ve told him as much. He’s a very bright kid, loves to immerse himself in books and will stay up reading until all hours. He’ll probably be a journo or a writer or both. I’m not concerned about his ability to do well in life. It’s no small coincidence, in fact, that my late passion for reading and writing surfaced after he was born.

Ok, so back to the story.

This morning he returned to the problem and asked for my help. I’m no maths genius, but of course, I was ready to help. The only problem was, my help was not the kind of help he wanted. He wanted me to give him the answer, and apart from the fact I haven’t solved a maths problem in over 30 years, I wasn’t going to do that.

I challenged him instead.

I asked him what he had done in the previous five questions that could give him a clue as to what his next move should be? He said he didn’t know. I said, if you don’t know, you won’t know. I’m not going to solve it for you so you’ll need to find a clue.

We went over and back for a couple of minutes, and he got frustrated and upset. I said, “ok, let’s leave it for a few minutes. Your brain won’t work in your favour if you’re upset. Calm yourself down, and we’ll come back to it in a few minutes”.

I made a cup of coffee, and he came around. We approached the problem again, and with a little positive effort from him and a little further stimulation from me, he solved the problem, not me. We later made up and hugged each other.

He asked me later, where will I ever use this stuff? What’s the practical use of these stupid equations?

I told him life will be full of problems. One after the other, at all stage of his life, he will be presented with problems to be solved. Solving problems is inherent in life. This does not mean that life is one great big problem, but it does mean that he must develop the wherewithal to solve the ones that life presents.

Every maths equation that causes difficulty, every miniature problem that arises, offers us the opportunity to become stronger — just a little bit stronger. The brain builds neural pathways from scratch and strengthens existing problem-solving ones. Resilience in the face of challenge is made in the safety of the training ground, in the safety of his home or school. Therefore, if he is to develop within himself this ability, he must leave the door open to the answer.

If we teach our kids to say to themselves; the answer is here, and I’m going to find it, then we teach them to leave the door open to the solution. When they say to themselves, I can’t find it, or I don’t know how to do it, they close the door to the answer — they’re done. They effectively say to themselves they are incapable and someone else will have to bail them out. They learn to lean on others for support and promote weakness in themselves.

Therefore, I believe it’s my overwhelming responsibility to teach my kids the absolute truth that the answers to their problems lie within them, not without. If they can’t find the answer right now, it’s only a matter of time — water on stone. They must learn to become comfortable in the discomfort of not knowing because only then, after staying the distance, will they find the answer they were seeking.

21 Ways To Boost Self-Efficacy & Achieve Your Goals
Albert Bandura suggested that high self-efficacious people tend to stay the course and achieve their goals. Here’s how…medium.com

Every single win, every mini-success builds self-confidence, resilience and belief in our ability to solve problems and achieve goals. Albert Bandura called this human ability, self-efficacy.

According to Self-Efficacy Theory, self-efficacious people believe that despite failure, they can find the answer. They intentionally approach difficult tasks and treat them as challenges to be overcome. They set challenging goals for themselves and maintain a strong commitment to completing them, regardless of the time it takes. They sustain their efforts in the face of setbacks or failure.

They attribute their current failures to a lack of effort, insufficient knowledge or skills on their part, which perhaps most importantly, they believe they can acquire. In other words, they don’t take failure personally.

I don’t like it when I make my kids upset, but I believe it’s necessary sometimes if they are to learn to self-regulate. I want them to be capable of standing on their own two feet after I’m gone. So if I’m going to help them, I prefer that happens on a small scale in the safety of their home. This is the training ground.

I demonstrated this with my son. I got him to stand beside me and lean all his weight into me. I asked him what would happen if I moved away? I’ll fall over, he said. Right then, I said, do you understand the importance of resilience and your belief in yourself to solve your own problems without me or your mam?

He answered in the affirmative.

Helping our kids means helping them to think for themselves. It means helping them to build a sense of self-control, self-belief and confidence that they can overcome challenges. It doesn’t mean propping them up. It doesn’t mean becoming a crutch upon which they will become dependent.

We’ve got to learn to recognise the difference between the support and stimulation and become comfortable with their discomfort. Otherwise, when we are gone, they may fall over.

For now, Saturday morning job done.

Thanks for taking the time to read my stuff. Every morning you’ll find me sharing a new thought on life, art, work, creativity, the self and the nature of reality on The Reflectionist. I also write on The Creative Mind. If you like what I’m creating, join my email list to receive the weekly Sunday Letters

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