My son Marty couldn’t wait for his bunk bed to arrive. He listed his 8-year-old classmates coming for a sleepover, “I want Greg, Alexander, and Andrew first.” The wooden blue stacked beds came on March 4. My second-grader immediately climbed to the top bunk and exclaimed, “Every weekend I will have a friend sleep over!” Two weeks later, we went into lockdown. The only person who has slept on the bottom bed is me.
As a mom and college educator, I worry about our kids’ mental health. Now a third-grader, Marty is under so much pressure to keep up with his academics while he navigates through the stress of a year like no other—days of remote learning, socially distanced playdates, and the loss of normal life.
Recently, I felt relieved when the head of Marty’s elementary school decided to dismiss students ninety minutes early on Wednesdays, allowing teachers more time to plan lessons and also giving students a break.
In this crazy year, I am coming to the conclusion that the most valuable skill my son could learn has nothing to do with a math worksheet or number-two pencil.
And I’m not alone.
In this Facebook post that was shared 11,000 times, lifelong educator Teresa Snyder asks colleagues to stop pressuring kids to make up schoolwork they might be missing: "What on earth are we trying to catch them up on?"
Instead, she urges adults to help children cope with the difficulties of this year. “Kids need to be given as many tools as we can provide to nurture resilience and help them adjust to a post-pandemic world.”
And as COVID turned our lives upside down, I could see how my son was struggling to adjust to his new normal. Marty spent hours on his iPad, refused to participate in remote classes, and said “no” to things he used to do.
“Let’s go to the playground”
“Let’s go out for ice cream”
“How about getting back on your bike?”
Marty was battening down the hatches—like a ship preparing to weather a big storm. Nothing could get in. The reporter in me went to work, researching and studying anxiety and what I could do to help my son have more of a “yes” brain. I consulted Doctor Google. I called dozens of mental health experts and dug into some scholarly studies. I came away with a simple answer: help him build resilience. Studies show that people who face moderate adversity and stress build that all-important life skill we call resilience. It’s the ability to bounce back. To cope with discomfort by experiencing it, not by avoiding it. Mental health experts say that people who are resilient are likely to be happier and healthier.
The thing that’s tough about resilience is that it has to be developed. I can’t sprinkle it on my son like magic dust. I should know this already; I’m a former war reporter. I lean into taking risks and see value in experiencing stressful situations. My best workdays were 8 a.m. to midnight, in up-armored Humvees and long walks through rural villages in Southern Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, always under pressure to make a deadline. Those situations all taught me the value of feeling, “I’ve got this.” No, I don’t want my son to build his resilience in Baghdad, but I do want him to opt into doing things that make him feel uncomfortable and then be able to recover.
Peter Gray, an evolutionary psychologist at Boston College who studies risk-taking and childhood development (and a Psychology Today blogger), told me that school-age kids like Marty build resilience by taking risks. He told me that kids shouldn’t be careful. “Risky play is practice in dealing with fear. You develop a kind of confidence that ‘I can handle situations.’” From an evolutionary perspective, Gray explained, risky play among juvenile mammals teaches them essential survival skills.
So, when Marty’s friend urged him to jump from a tree branch that was a little too high for my comfort, I bit my tongue instead of yelling, “Be careful!” I stopped watching Marty play and started letting him figure out for himself what he would and wouldn’t do. Without me hovering, Marty got gutsy. I peeked out the window and saw him and a friend climb over the deck railing and shimmy to the other end, fingers tightly gripping the wooden bar. Another time I heard them pop out the screen window of Marty’s second-floor bedroom and giggle, sitting on the roof. As dangerous as it sounds, I had to tell myself it was OK in that moment. When I talked to Marty later, he assured me he was holding onto the window frame and he wasn’t going to make the roof his regular hangout.
The strangest thing happened. Marty started to smile more. He said “yes” instead of “no.” He was more confident.
One day I talked to Marty about doing a weekly courage challenge. “Why don’t you pick something that makes you nervous and do it?” I asked him. “That’s a cool idea,” he said.
Each week, he tried something new: swimming alone in a nearby creek, surfing ocean waves, and cooking his own breakfast (two fried eggs—a little burned, with way too much butter).
“For my next courage challenge, I’ll get back on my bike,” Marty told me one afternoon. He hadn’t been on his bike since a minor crash.
“Mom, I’m scared,” he said, as he leaned from side to side while sitting on his bike seat, making sure one foot was always touching terra firma.
“It feels uncomfortable. That’s OK. Actually, that’s great!” I told him. “When you feel that unsettled feeling in your stomach—that means you are building courage.” With that, Marty pushed off and started to ride. “Woo-hoo!!!” he yelled as he stuck his legs out in what looked like a V for victory.
Joe McGuire, a psychologist at Johns Hopkins who treats kids with anxiety disorders, explains, “When we are facing our fears, we are building that tolerance to distress, to the unknown. We see time and time again that this works.”
It was certainly working for Marty. One afternoon some weeks later, when Marty was at a friend’s house, I drove to pick him up without realizing his bike was there. “Do you want to ride your bike home alone?” I asked. “It’s a good courage challenge.” I would be lying if I didn’t admit that I was nervous. He had to ride on the side of a well-traveled road. I thought of all of the things that could go wrong, and I realized this was my courage challenge too. It felt scarier to me than heading out on patrol with U.S. soldiers in Baghdad.
As I got into the car, thinking that I would of course follow him, Marty yelled, “Mom, don’t follow me! I’VE GOT THIS!” I couldn’t respond because my throat was tight and my eyes were damp. He took off, alone, legs pumping and wheels turning.
This year, Marty is in school, mostly in person. Many days are a struggle. But I am less focused on his schoolwork than I am on his mental health. The life skills he is gaining from taking chances and building confidence are more valuable than keeping up with every assignment. And if and when he falls behind, I know he’ll catch up.
That’s because Marty’s brain has changed. I saw it recently when he skidded out on his bike, his knees and palms scraping the gravel. With shaking and bloody knees, he said, “I’m OK Mom.” And he biked home.
Nowadays, the dog usually falls asleep on the bottom bunk. Marty is finding ways to survive, in the present, while looking forward to that list of friends who will one day sleep over.
To Sum It Up: As strange as it may seem, COVID has actually helped me discover the steps my son needed to take to build resilience—and they aren’t that hard. With a weekly courage challenge, Marty learned how to take risks, get out of his comfort zone, and make choices that made him feel in control of his own destiny. And his mental health is stronger than ever.
3 Ways to Help a Child Build Resilience
- Suggest a weekly courage challenge. Help kids find ways to try new things that feel different and scary. Child psychologists say that when kids have more experience managing uncertainty, they develop flexibility and learn to tolerate distress. Author Caroline Miller, a positive psychology coach who studies grit and resilience, tells me the only way that kids develop these life skills “is by going out of their comfort zone.”
- Resist the urge to fix. Support kids as they feel uncomfortable but leave the problem-solving to them. Ellen O’Donnell, a child psychologist who teaches at Harvard Medical School says, “Let them feel angry, frustrated, anxious and realize that they will make it through.” She said parents can offer comfort and support, but “that's different than fixing their problem for them.”
- Let them play. Build in free time for your kids to play but don’t hover. Peter Gray, the evolutionary psychologist at Boston College, urged me to schedule fewer adult-supervised activities. He told me, “The whole purpose of childhood is to become increasingly independent. The way children learn to be adults is by being away from adults, learning to solve their own problems.” He suggests finding age-appropriate ways for kids to take risks and build confidence, without being reckless. For younger kids, he recommends free play.