“We Can Do Hard Things:” Building Resilience in Kids

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My 6-year-old was excited to make a star out of sticks and string, but as the materials tangled, his frustration spiked. So we took a break and went on a walk together.

“Do you remember when you were learning how to ride a bike?” I said. “You fell down a lot at first, and you got really frustrated sometimes, but you didn’t give up. Now you ride around like a pro. Everything new takes practice, but you always figure it out.”

Childhood is all about growing, on the outside and inside. Tasks adults take for granted—like buttoning a jacket—require practice to master. Every time our kids work through these big and small challenges, they are building their skills for resilience and perseverance. These aren’t fixed traits that kids are born with. Rather, they develop slowly through life experience, practice, and with the support of caring adults.

Donkey Hodie,” a new puppet series from PBS KIDS, draws its inspiration from Fred Rogers and his mission to help young viewers navigate the challenges of childhood. In each episode, characters set goals, encounter obstacles, explore and test solutions, experience failure, and persist toward their goal, asking for help as needed. While the show is set in the whimsical land of Someplace Else, it models a problem-solving process that kids and parents will readily recognize.

Here are 4 ways parents and caregivers can support this vital effort to help kids build perseverance and resilience.

1. Help Children Name Their Goals
Goals are powerful, even for kids. They want to learn how to tie their shoes, shoot a basket, buckle their seatbelt, write their name, cut with scissors, walk the dog, learn a new game, make a new friend, name all the dinosaurs, build a tower, and find ways to be helpful, and become contributing members of their families and classrooms.

When children can name a small goal they want to accomplish, it can help them focus their attention, explore strategies, and persist when things go wrong. And it helps us, as caregivers, celebrate their successes. “You did it! You learned how to zip up your coat all by yourself!”

2. Help Children Work through Tough Emotions
Sometimes, learning and growing can be really frustrating. A little empathy can go a long way in helping kids find the strength to try, try again. Try a simple phrase like this: “You spent a long time building that tower and then it fell. That’s super frustrating!”

Calming big emotions is a vital step that comes before problem-solving. In the story “Royal Sandcastle Builders,” Donkey, King Friday, and Purple Panda sing about the different ways they practiced calming down after getting frustrated at trying to build a sandcastle. And then they are able to try again! When kids are in the middle of an emotional storm, it’s unrealistic to expect them to brainstorm solutions! But when the storm passes, we can be there to help them think about what to do next.

3. Praise Children’s Efforts & Be Specific
Generic praise—such as “Wow!” or “Good work!” or “Nice!”—is warm and supportive. But descriptive praise is even more powerful because it’s specific and helps kids make the connection between what they are doing and what they are learning.

This language shift can be pretty simple. Just describe what you notice. “Good work” can become “Good work figuring out how to share with your sister.” “Nice!” can become “Nice! I like all the different colors you used in this picture.”

When we offer specific observations, we show our kids that we are paying attention to them. We see their effortAnd when it comes to building perseverance and resilience, effort matters more than the outcome.

4. Use Stories to Teach Them about “Yet.”
There’s a big difference, emotionally, between the phrase, “I can’t do it!” and “I can’t do it, yet.” The word “yet” is a bridge between present frustration and future possibility. Stories are a great tool for inspiring kids to persevere, especially when they hear and watch stories about characters who work through challenges. We can also tell children stories about themselves! My kids love hearing stories about how they turned a struggle into an achievement. It helps them feel proud and reminds them that they can do hard things.

Growing up is hard, amazing work. Kids deserve supportive adults by their side, offering encouragement and celebrating all the ways they are growing.

—By Deborah Farmer Kris
Deborah Farmer Kris is a writer, teacher, parent educator, and school administrator. She works on parenting projects for PBS KIDS for Parents and writes about education for MindShift, an NPR learning blog. Deborah has two kids who love to test every theory she’s ever had about child development! Mostly, she loves finding and sharing nuggets of practical wisdom that can help kids and families thrive — including her own. You can follow her on Twitter @dfkris.

This post originally appeared on PBS KIDS for Parents.