Vicky Bingham, headmistress of South Hampstead High School GDST, argues that parental resilience is critical to children’s well-being and success.
Every so often at an open day, a question gives me pause for thought. I was once asked what our Resilience Strategy was as if ‘resilience’ could be boiled down to a strategic plan with SMART targets and KPIs. On one level, it was a good question: schools sometimes bandy the term resilience around without really understanding how they build it. But on another level, the question suggested that resilience could be bottled up by schools without any parental intervention. If only it were so easy.
As parents we are bombarded with information from a bewildering array of sources about how best to raise our children. We are one of the best-informed generations of parents, yet one of the most anxious. A new book, Love, Money, and Parenting by two American Economics professors, suggests that the rise in economic inequality in countries such as the UK and USA has upped the stakes; parents feel they can no longer afford to be relaxed.
Parental engagement in education is an asset to children and to the school community. However, being hyper hands-on risks depriving children of opportunities to develop independence and resilience. To truly thrive, children need the internal skills and motivations to find their own way. Knowing when to step back is as important as knowing when to step in.
Resilience involves proportionate reaction to what life deals us – and children take their cues from their parents. It is normal to feel disappointment when your child does not get invited to a party or selected for a sports team or into your first choice school. But observe your child’s reaction before responding. Children can be surprisingly resilient and rushing in with sympathy can make them worry that they are facing a crisis.
The parents whose resilience I admire are the unlucky few whose children narrowly miss a university offer on A Level results day. They are bewildered and sad for their daughter, but I admire their ability to keep them focused on the next steps, and their attempts to put this failure into perspective. The resilient parent has the ability to sympathise and yet not dramatise.
Equally important is allowing your child to own their setbacks and see themselves as agents for change. Resilient parenting involves accepting that your child will find some things difficult and stressful – not swooping in with intervention packages at the first sign of struggle. This principle applies to schoolwork but also to friendships.
We have introduced lessons in the early years of Senior School at South Hampstead to help pupils develop strong teenage friendships without constant adult intervention. They must understand how their own behaviour can make and sustain friendships. Even when fault lines appear and the school has to intervene, it is important that your child feels they have some choice and control.
If I had to choose a metaphor for resilient parenting, it would be the driving instructor and the dual control car. Occasionally you slam the breaks on or take the wheel. But mostly you are sitting alongside: guiding, trying not to lose your cool and quietly observing any developing hazards. In the interests of an extended metaphor, it is highly unlikely that your child will pass their test with absolutely no minor faults along the way… but pass in the end, and accelerate forwards, they surely will.
Article first appeared in School House magazine, February 2019