Tuesday, January 19, 2010

What Makes People Resilient?

I am blessed to have two friends who have severe cases of Multiple Sclerosis (MS). Of course, neither of them would go so far as to consider their steadily deteriorating health a blessing. But they each have managed to maintain their optimism, good humor and grace in the face of this horribly daunting illness. Both live the bulk of their lives in wheel chairs. Each is losing his eyesight, with one already having been declared legally blind. Yet they still face each day with a gusto that I wonder if I would have if I were in their situation.

What makes people resilient? Is it innate? Or is it cultivated? That’s the age-old nature vs. nurture question. I think the answer is “Yes. It’s both.”

I consider myself to be very resilient. In part, because of my native intelligence. I’m no genius, but I have devoted my adult life to doing the best I can with the “horsepower” I have been given and to help others do the same. And in part because my mother actively cultivated our resilience by her words and by her role model. After Daddy died, Mama was a widow at 48, left on her own to raise the last four of us kids. I never once doubted she would take care of us. And she managed. Both her counsel and her example advised us to “Make the best of it” regardless of situations we faced, whether it was getting a C on an Algebra test or a boyfriend breaking up with us.

What has made my friends with MS so adaptive and unflappable? First, I need to say that clearly, they both have their bad days, just like the rest of us do. But they have learned how to think of and care for others, not merely dwelling on their own miseries. I am humbled to say that I regularly am the beneficiary of their kindness and good humor. They both consciously avoid having a “poor me” attitude. Although each confides in me, it is to get my help and perspective, rather than out of a “pity party.” They are good, helpful, pleasant friends whom I am blessed to have in my life.

How can adults instill resilience in children? Perhaps the most important way is to put their children in situations that are mildly taxing. For example, it is challenging enough to learn to play the piano. I started taking lessons at age seven and continued for ten years even into college. Having to play the piano at a recital was taxing. But it was do-able. I just had to get a grip and do it. Another way is not accepting slap dash efforts children make. When I taught English in high school, I had a student who had just completed a year’s inpatient hospitalization for depression. On the first day of school, I assigned a short paper to be handed in the next day. This student approached me after class to tell me she had not completed her assignment because she had been psychiatrically hospitalized the year before. My response was one she said later she’ll never forget. “So? What does that have to do with your not handing in your assignment?” You can be sure she was not late with an assignment for the rest of the year.

What adults should not do if their intention is to build resilience in children is to not praise each and every little thing a child does with the ubiquitous, “Good job!” For example, my husband and I went to a conservatory last spring so he could engage in his favorite hobby of photographing flowers. On a trip to the rest room, I noticed a mother supervising her 4 or 5 year-old daughter’s hand washing. When the child on tiptoes turned off the water, the mother pronounced, “Good job!” I wondered to myself a) What was such a good job about doing a routine activity like washing her hands after using the bathroom? and B) What would the mother have left to say when the child brought home an A on a report for Social Studies or English? “Good job” by that time would surely seem to the child to be lame.

If everything children do yields a gratuitous “Good job!” they learn two things: 1) to be praise junkies dependent on gratuitous words of others in order to function; and 2) to expect praise from others, rather than establishing their own internal gauge for a job well done.

No comments: