Resilience: How Parents Can Foster Competence In Children

download (2)Competence is the ability or knowledge to handle situations effectively. Competence is acquired through real life experience. First, one acquires skills. Then, he learns to trust his own judgment, make responsible choices and face different situations.

Competence is the first of the 7 C’s, because it provides the bedrock and backdrop for resilience. Without competence, it is unlikely that the other 6 C’s could be developed. A parent’s role in fostering a child’s competence requires some introduction.

As your child matures, he learns more skills, masters new achievements and reaches a higher level of competence. Your reaction to these milestones has a direct effect on his motivation to continue striving. If you react by applauding his efforts, your child learns that his achievements are important and noteworthy. However, if you ignore his accomplishments, due to your hectic life or because you take these miracles for granted for your child is merely following the path that everyone trots, you send him a subtle message that it doesn’t pay to continue trying. In the same vein, if you are overly involved and ceaselessly praise, prompt, push, prod and protect, the excessive pressure will stilt your child’s growth, because he will end up feeling incompetent. Besides, the child may be pressured into aiming for more than that which is naturally possible, interfering with the natural growth process. You want to strive to create a healthy balance of encouragement, without excessive interference or indifference.

For many parents, it’s difficult to remember that they are not playing the starring role in their child’s life’s show. They have an innate urge to direct, correct, fix and help out. Yet, it is imperative that you step aside and allow your child to attempt on his own. This tells your child, “I have faith in your ability to succeed.” When you allow your child do his writing on his own, you express your confidence in his creativity. When you encourage your child to build clicks to his own specifications, you communicate, “I think you are capable.” These messages empower your child. Even if the end result is less satisfactory than if you would’ve added your input, the lesson your child learnt through the independent process more than outweighs the disadvantages.

Every time you “take over the steering wheel,” so to speak, you undermine your child’s feeling of competence. By single-handedly solving all of your child’s problems, you create a situation in which your child is crippled; he is permanently dependent on you. In contrast, whenever you “get out of the way” and allow your child to flex his own problem-solving muscles or give him gentle encouragement from the sidelines, you foster your child’s independence, self-reliance and competence. You diminish your child’s internal power struggles to develop his own identity, giving him the confidence to turn to you for nurturance that has no age boundaries.

Why do parents have an urge to “man the show”? They think: otherwise, their child will fail; their child is not trying his hardest; they will be embarrassed by their child’s poor reflection of them; people will judge them based on their children, so their children must be perfect products; their child experience the same discomfort they feel when making mistakes, so they wish to protect them; their children will not live up to their high standards of wrong and right; or simply, criticism is the best form of guidance, and this judgment is crucial to self-improvement.

Parents tip-toe on a tightrope throughout their child’s growing years. Every new phase presents another twist on the same old question: To be or to let be? To be there too much, to be there too little or to let the child simply be?

It begins when the toddler takes his first step. Will his mother applaud him, ignore him or scoop him up into her arms, lest he fall and hurt himself? It continues as the toddler begins progresses to walking around the house and exploring his environment. Will his mother constantly yell at him for touching her delicate knick-knacks or will she child-proof her home to enable him to delight in the joy of discovery? It is highlighted as the four-year-old child begins to play with toys, when the mother can allow him to use his fertile imagination to build the tower of his heart’s content, or she can “take over” the job as “construction foreman” giving him detailed instructions about every brick, or she can ignore his efforts and simply remind him to clean up. It is replayed as the six-year-old paints a picture; his mother can appreciate his creativity and give specific compliments about the painting, or “teach” him how to do it better next time. It continues as the ten-year-old’s teacher assigns a science project. Mother can encourage from the sidelines, do the project for the child or knock the child’s efforts by comparing his results with a classmate’s. It intensifies as the child hits adolescent friend problems. Does mother dictate a solution, fix the problem by interfering, downplay the child’s hurt or boost the child’s competence by displaying your trust in him and asking, “What do you think you could do to make things better?”

In every phase, in every stage, the props may be different, but the parent’s reaction sends the same signal. Even the age-old dilemma of sibling rivalry presents a scenario in which parents can choose to “be judge” and solve their children’s fights or say, “I trust that you can work this out on your own.”

Lesson number one in fostering your child’s competence is “getting out of the way” and giving him the opportunity to develop this trait on his own.

Lesson number two is giving your child free time to play. Over scheduling a child’s unstructured time (i.e. every Sunday is filled with a program, starting with music lessons from 9 to 10 am and ending with baking sessions from 9 to 10 pm, with an hour-by-hour itinerary in between) is yet another way of limiting the child’s ability to explore his own areas of competence. Free play is an opportunity to develop imagination and discover personal areas of interest – to realize new areas of competence. Free play also teaches the child to achieve competence in many life skills, such as working with others, negotiating, sharing and giving in. It is also an opportunity for the child to develop on his own pace. In addition, when you observe or join from the sidelines, while letting the child direct the activity, you gain a new perspective of your child’s world from his vantage point.

In addition to avoiding over-interference and giving your child free time to develop his own areas of competence, lesson number three is praise and criticize your child smartly.

A smart parent will praise even “ordinary, age-appropriate” achievements. A smart parent will not overdo the praise, for the child will feel talked down to and become unmotivated to strive for true greatness. A smart parent will use specifics to praise, such as “You used a beautiful shade of red to paint that flower,” instead of using vague, clichéd generalities.

Well-targeted criticism is even more tricky, but equally crucial to develop a child’s competence. Damaging criticism is crippling; it causes a child to feel incapable, (the opposite of competent,) crushes his motivation and leads to shame, anger and resentment. Yet, without guidance, a child cannot progress. A parent cannot be afraid to point out how a child can improve; she should simply seek to do it smartly.

When criticizing, be constructive and be specific. Criticism that’s constructive offers concrete advice as to how the situation can be remedied instead of harping on the problem. “To clean up spilled milk, we use a rag  and…” Criticism that’s specific is geared for the given situation and does not attack the child.  It’s ok to target the scenario and say, “you have talked on the phone long enough is coming and each family member is needed to pitch in.  We need your help to pull the wagon” It’s not ok to negate the entire person and yell, “You’re one selfish, self-centered child!” Criticism is even smarter when the child is given room to figure out on his own how to solve his problems, thereby adding to his competence and not destroying his confidence – besides, of course, having the child master the lesson in a more permanent, effective manner.

These three pointers are a backdrop upon which your child can begin to build his own fortress of strengths; the fertile ground to breed upon competence; the bedrock to foster the seven C’s, ultimately leading to resilience.

Think, “I can!” and you most certainly will. Thoughts of competence cause a person to deal effectively with difficulties. Instead of being negative about the unlikelihood of overcoming a challenge and becoming stuck on the first instinctive depressing thoughts, a person can reframe his brain to “decatastrophize” the situation and optimistically explore different solution options. Studies prove that children and adults who learn to think positively about their ability to cope with problems become better copers. Reframing situations leads to discovering solutions. Discovering solutions makes a person confident in his solutionizing skills and competent to solve future challenges.

To help your child think more competently, teach him to analyze situations objectively and optimistically. When facing a hurdle, ask pointed questions, such as:

What went wrong?

How can we take control of this situation?

How serious is this – a wrangle, a bump or a catastrophe?

Teach your child not to magnify problems, but to make accurate assessments of the situation. In addition, help your child differentiate between matters that can be changed and things that are out of their hands.  Train him to be realistic, so if he has no control over something, he should not waste his time on it.

Help your child self-talk his way out of a challenge. Teach him to ask himself: What went wrong? How do I feel about it? What can I do next?

These positive thoughts will lead to positive actions…and a greater sense of competence.

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12 responses

  1. THAT is a fantastic post. I think my father must have done every science project for me and in fact told me I was BAD in science. I am now a nutritionist studying nutrition biochemistry but it took me 30 years to shake that off. As a mother I intend to bookmark this post as a reminder to be present but not overbearing as my children learn, explore and master.

    1. Wow! I feel for you I’m happy that now you’re ‘over’ it and can move on. I truly admire you!
      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Absolutely! WE are their teachers and it’s important for us to remember that. They will thrive if we show them, teach them, and praise them.

    1. Definitely, although it might be a little hard, it’s worth it!
      Thanks for commenting.

  3. Great article! I like the focus on competence, because that is very different from saying to your child, “you are gifted”. On the news, I saw that generation Y says they are gifted at everything, yet they have the worst reading and writing skills on record, and 80% of them live at home with their parents. Telling them they were gifted at everything didn’t work out so well for them;) Interesting, huh.

    1. Wow, that sure is interesting! Thanks for your comment.

  4. Thank you for sharing these tips. We are working to raise a resilient child.

    1. Your Welcome Cynthia and I wish you loads of luck!
      Thanks for stopping by.

  5. Excellent post. When my daughter started walking, I was right there with her when she fell. My son got very upset with me and told me not to let her fall. I explained to him that I was standing right there and that for her to become a walker, she has to try. And with trying, she might and probably will fall again. It seems I missed the boat on teaching my son.

    1. As a side point, I love when siblings love one another. It’s so nice how your son was concerned for his sister. As a mother, it is very heartwarming!
      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. Thank you for this very informative post! I’m at the stage where I’d do everything to make my son love learning as much as I did during his age. Haha. 🙂

    1. Your welcome and thanks for stopping by!

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