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How "You're Great" Has Morphed Into "Buck Up"

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teaching resilience

While “self-esteem” was the phrase that guided parents 20 years ago, “grit” and “resilience” will likely be the words that echo in your adolescent’s ears – and yours.

So which is it? Do we tell kids how great they are at every endeavor or let them fail and advise them to learn from the experience and toughen up?

Helping kids gain confidence and value themselves is not a bad idea if it is genuine but self-worth comes most directly and meaningfully from hard work and persistence, some experts say. It looks like we’ve learned that telling children they are wonderful or praising them without merit may just produce entitlement and bolster an unwarranted glowing self image. Self-esteem comes from real success and accomplishment.

The current school of thought

Paul Tough’s book, “How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character,” is perhaps the touchstone for the current thinking. He argues persuasively that “the qualities that matter most have more to do with character skills like perseverance, curiosity, conscientiousness, optimism and self-control.”

There is not a lot of talk about self-esteem.

Thomas Hoerr, a veteran school administrator and the author of a new book titled “Grit: How to Prepare Students for the Real World,” says that the two concepts are not diametrically opposed, but that self-worth should be based on real success.

“I’m concerned about young people who have come out of the trophy culture that says everyone is a winner. I think rewards are very important – but rewards built on real accomplishments,” he says.

He also says it is important for parents that adolescents clearly understand the value of resilience.

Oh, right, you say, that’s one more message I have to get across to my kid at a time when he or she claims to be (and perhaps is) saturated with my advice and overwhelmed with responsibility.

“Make it real. Grit is a dialogue that kids will get involved with,” says Hoerr. “It should be a conversation, not a lecture. Awareness of it is not something we should do to kids, we should do it with them.”

Show young people the ways they have persevered, and ways we as parents have, he says.

“We don’t tend to talk to kids about our accomplishments in ways that are interesting to them or they can relate to. Parents have to make experiences with resilience meaningful and be a role model for their kids in this regard.”

So based on expert advice, here are 10 ways you can make your children “grittier.”

  1. Talk. Explain resilience and its importance, but not in the midst of a parental lecture.

  2. Point out hard work – yours, theirs and that of others.

  3. Point out success, where hard work has paid off, especially in areas of interest to them: a basketball player who practiced endlessly, the designer of an app who worked all night for a year, or a singer who finally got a hit.

  4. Social success is good, too. Fitting in, handling adolescent life and being social safely and successfully is a challenge kids can succeed at in steps.

  5. Acknowledge strengths and weaknesses. Kids should understand both.

  6. Make failure OK. Kids can learn from this too, sometimes the most. Everyone has missteps.

  7. Encourage risk. It’s often where growth occurs.

  8. Be a role model. Show kids where you have failed and succeeded and persisted.

  9. Don’t compare. Kids tune out talks about others who are better.

  10. Don’t overdo it. Plant the seed. Don’t expect immediate change.

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