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Lessons in resilience: Ostrich plus bubble-wrap equals?

Published on 03/06/14

What do you get if you cross an ostrich with bubble-wrap (with no cruelty to animals)? It sounds a twisted joke – yet, faced with an alarming catalogue of ‘pressures on young people today’ (from drugs to cyber-bullying), it can be only too tempting for adults to adopt the ‘ostrich approach’ or the ‘bubble-wrap method’

Or, in the words of the former Children’s Commissioner for Scotland: ‘We say that we wrap kids in cotton wool but I say that we have become so fearful for them, we wrap them in barbed wire and put up a sign that says, keep out.’

So many metaphors – and they don’t work. Trying to protect children from anything bad ever happening to them has the inevitable result that they really can’t cope when something bad really does happen. Bubble-wrap is impossible and undesirable. So what to do? Answer: help children to develop the character and skills to deal with the challenges of life. This sometimes happens explicitly in schools through the Personal, Social and Health Education programme, constantly evolving to reflect students’ changing needs, or through the crucial partnership between school and home, such as our parents’ information events on subjects ranging from children’s internet safety and eating disorders, to body image, self-esteem and transforming the teenage years. But this doesn’t, of course, happen in a vacuum.

Character isn’t magically developed through one-off sessions, valuable though they obviously are, but by a drip-feed effect over time. How? Through every single interaction. It’s hardly an instant solution or a magic wand but then no-one ever said being a parent or teacher was easy. This way, we don’t just administer emergency first-aid when things go wrong. We develop children’s underlying resilience – their ability to bounce back, whatever life throws at them.

It doesn’t mean a boot-camp. We can encourage children to go outside their comfort zones, intellectually, socially and physically - to try new things, work with new people, stand up for what they believe, put up with things that may not be exactly as they’d choose. By helping them to deal with setbacks, they'll learn to see them as precisely that rather than as insurmountable obstacles. As the Chinese proverb says: “We can’t stop the bird of sorrow landing on our shoulder but we can stop it nesting in our hair.” We can’t remove all bad things from the world but we can help to form children’s outlook: are difficulties insuperable problems or learning experiences?

I won’t attempt to improve on Shakespeare, since Hamlet sums it up to perfection: “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”. Resourcefulness and resilience are developed through giving children a sense of control, encouraging them to think ‘what can I do about that?’ Leaping in to sort things out for them - from the best of motives - easily reinforces a belief that they can’t solve problems for themselves.

Children with an appropriate level of self-belief - not arrogance but confidence – are better able to deal with the knocks that are an inevitable part of being human without going into total meltdown. And that is surely one of the greatest gifts we can give them.