The hope is that they become resourceful adults. The hope is that they learn to take life’s ups and downs and continue on. The hope is that they will recover from setbacks and mistakes, and persevere — even becoming stronger as they go. For most parents, the hope when raising children is that they will grow to be mentally tough adults. And in order to grow mentally tough adults, we have to raise mentally tough kids — as it turns out the process begins very early on. So how do we teach our kids to be mentally tough? Here are five ways:
Teach Don’t Tell. “Sit Down.” “Do Your Homework.” “Clean Your Room.” While these orders may be necessary, they don’t teach your kid anything other than compliance. And often, if said too much, they can cause your kid to tune you out. If you want to teach, the first thing you need is an engaged learner. So how do you get your kid engaged? You stop directing, and start asking. “Do you know why you have to sit down?” “Do you know why you have homework?” “Do you know why you have chores?” Asking your kid these questions — and many more — as oppose to simply issuing orders, causes her to think, become engaged, and learn why she has to do the things you are asking. And understanding the purpose of things not only leads to better engagement and cooperation, it leads to better frustration tolerance — which is a huge part of being mentally tough.
Raise Your Standards. Kids are a reflection of you. Everything you do, what you say, how you respond to others, becomes your kid’s reality. And yet, probably every parent has lost it at some point. But when you lose emotional control in front of your child, when you become defensive, fail to admit your mistakes, blame others, or act unkindly, your kids pick up on this too. And what you expect of yourself, is what you expect of your kids. So if you want your kids to grow to be mentally tough, show them what mental toughness is. Be a model of it. Show them how to take setbacks and use them to become better. Show them how to go after a goal, and don’t stop until you get there. Show them how you hold yourself up to the standards you set. And then when you set the standards for them — or better yet, encourage them to set them for themselves — they will know how to reach them. Having high standards, and reaching them, is a huge part of being mentally tough.
Let Them See Reality. Reality is not a cell phone at 9 years old. Reality is not a big house with a swimming pool. Reality is not the next new video game. Reality, for the majority of the world, is much more basic than that. Food on the table, a roof over the head, clothes on the back. As much as our kids are shielded from it, the majority of the world’s population lives well below our standard of living. Yet this may not be the best thing when it comes to teaching mental toughness. A kid who grows up with a certain standard of living, will expect to continue this standard of living as an adult. Yet unfortunately, this is just not possible for most college grads, who face an uncertain job market, and massive student debt. And this is a huge blow for most kids who grew up thinking that everyone has a nice house, nice car, and new clothes. So instead of shielding your kid from this harsh reality, show them what reality is. Let them see that life exists outside of their world and that people do just fine without cell phones, nice clothes, fancy cars, and big houses. Let them see that mental toughness is about knowing that your strength exists on the inside — in yourself — and is not defined by the things you have.
Practice Gratitude. According to researchers Richard Tedeshi and Lawrence Calhoun, two researchers who study post-traumatic growth, focus group reports of people who have gone through incredibly traumatic experiences and come out stronger, all relate one commonality: a feeling of gratitude. Gratitude for the life they have. What gratitude does is help survivors find a sense of appreciation when everything seems to fall apart — and it ultimately helps them continue on. And in order to teach your kids gratitude, show them what gratitude is — being grateful for what you have, as oppose to always wanting more. Show them how to find the positive in every situation — and there is one. Because mental toughness is about continuing on — even against the odds.
Teach Adaptability. Learning to adapt, according to Tim Harford, author of Adapt: Why Success Always Starts With Failure, is what separates not just successful individuals, but business and corporations, from the unsuccessful ones. The case that Harford makes is that adaptation is an evolutionary principle that has real world implications. Being able to take risks while not selling the farm, making mistakes, and then adjusting the approach based on mistakes, are the three components that define adaptability and as Harford notes, those who do not take risks do not evolve, because the landscape is always changing and what works for today may not work tomorrow. So if we want to be successful, we have to adapt. But learning to adapt is also a part of being mentally tough, because the truth is, things do not always go your way. So how do you teach your kids to adapt? Encourage them to try new things, even if it means taking a risk, and them let them know that mistakes happen, they are part of the learning process, and when they do, ask them what they learned, and what they can do different next time. Lastly, if you want to teach your kids to adapt, show them how you adapt when things don’t go your way.
Teaching toughness to kids is not an overnight process, but it is one that builds upon itself. Because once kids learn what it is, and that it’s something you — the parent — value, they naturally want to do it more. Yet while toughness for most kids is pretty instinctive, it is also highly linked to the environment in which they are raised.