Building resilience: how to be a ‘failure-friendly’ home

Tips for building resilience by Dr Elyse Waites, Head of Biology and Professional Skills Programme Co-ordinator.

Never allowing your children to get something wrong, to fail and to pick themselves back up is doing them a disservice. They must be challenged and encouraged to question the world around them from an early age. They must try new things and be allowed to explore their potential so they can find their passions and make informed choices about their future, be that academic qualifications, further education options or job interviews. Helping to build resilience in a child is the greatest gift you can give.

So how can you do this on a day to day basis? What can you do as parents or guardians, in your home, to help your children build their resilience and face failure?

Model resilient behaviour

You are your children’s role model. They may not admit it or even know it but they are learning how to be an adult from everything you do. It is therefore important for them to see you modelling the kind of behaviour you want from them. So why not try some new things yourself, take risks in your own life and let them know you are doing it.  Are you going for promotion at work? Returning to work after being at home? Taking up a new hobby/sport? Setting up a book club? Be open with them about the challenges you are facing and the fears you have about trying something new. Tell them how you get on – was it harder than you thought? What did you do about that? Don’t hide or protect them from what you are doing; if you fail at something then tell them – let them see you can deal with failure and move forward. They might even have advice to give you and this will help them to see situations from a different perspective, helping you navigate your way in the meantime.

Give them problems to solve

Girls especially need to be encouraged in the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), which are dominated by boys at 6th form and University level. You can help to do this without them even realising:

  • Involve them in mathematical discussions in the supermarket or about pocket money spending and budgeting
  • Ask them to work out how to use the latest household gadget you have acquired and then explain it to everyone else in the family
  • Can they help design a shelving unit for bedroom or storage in the garden shed?
  • Involve them in a discussion about the latest scientific story on the news – what can they find out about it?

Don’t put ideas into their heads

The most frustrating phrases I hear at parents’ evenings are along these lines: “Oh she takes after me – I’m rubbish at languages”; “We’re just not a maths-y family’”; “I always hated science”.

Hearing their parents say things like this will make your child think that their intelligence has already been decided. If their family is not good at maths then they aren’t either and there is nothing they can do about it. Might as well give up, then. It gives them an excuse to ‘opt out’.

I’m afraid to say, and I mean no offence by this, that it isn’t about you. It doesn’t matter what you were good at school, there are too many variables: different teachers, classmates, textbooks and syllabuses. What your child needs to hear is that, whatever their level of achievement in maths, they CAN improve, their intelligence is flexible and they can forge their own path. Instead of allowing them to be ‘bad’ at a subject because that is what your family is like, why not praise them for showing more aptitude for a particular subject their father/aunt/uncle etc. never did. Ask them to teach you something they have learned in Chemistry or Geography to help you understand it; this has the dual benefit of being an excellent revision tool. Giving them confidence and watching them allow themselves to be good at a subject will be a great reward.

Asking the right questions

Questioning is an essential skill and one that can be nurtured and developed from a young age. If your child can ask the right kinds of questions in an effective way they will gain so much more than if they are one of those students who asks questions for the sake of it, because they can’t be bothered to engage their brain and they just want the right answer anyway. I have been known to limit my students to two questions each per lesson.  This may seem like I am discouraging the enquiring minds of the future but it actually forces them to construct their question in the most effective way they can. This is certainly something you can do at home. Of course it isn’t appropriate for every day but it is perhaps something you could instigate on a particular night of the week – ‘Three question Thursdays’ for example!

Encourage independent thought

Alongside questioning skills come ‘Thinking Skills’. By this I mean the ability to think around new problems and come up with ideas and potential solutions. These are often the skills lacking in the bright, academic students who go for interviews at competitive universities and find they don’t know the ‘right’ answer. Developing this aspect means developing skills that will allow them to converse with anyone about anything; to be delightful dinner guests and eloquent, thoughtful, sparky young adults. Nothing will phase them, no question will go by without being addressed and their self-esteem and resilience will improve.

Examples of questions I have heard asked at University interviews include:

  • What do you have in common with a banana?
  • How many bricks are there in London?
  • Describe the colour yellow to someone who is blind?
  • Who is your favourite spice girl?

The interviewers very rarely want an answer; they may have just made this question up on the spot. It is absolutely not about getting anything right. That would be impossible in most cases and this is what freaks people out. If you can help your child develop some strategies to be able to cope with these kinds of questions and scenarios they will be much better equipped to get through these hoops and progress with their university careers.

Let’s take the first question: What do you have in common with a banana? Tell me about a banana. I imagine you might say it has a skin, it is yellow and bent or perhaps ‘it is a fruit’. Well you have skin so let’s start there. What is skin made from – cells, we all have cells. A banana is a fruit, therefore a plant, think back to Y7 biology lessons – similarities between plant and animal cells. You could actually get some cold hard facts in there if you like! Or perhaps a bit more philosophically – it is a living thing like you, it grew and developed like you did, it matures and then rots. It is all about your train of thought: can you ask the right questions to yourself to steer down an interesting and informative path.

Why not have a go at the others ….

If you have younger children there are a couple of brilliant books out there called: ‘You Choose’ and ‘Imagine If’ by Nick Sharratt. They are full of lovely illustrations around a theme (e.g. which bed would you choose and why? which way of travelling would you choose and why?). These have started no end of brilliant discussions with my children on trains and buses or in idle moments and I think they are a fantastic tool for introducing this way of thinking.

Another very worthwhile activity is to access TED or TED ED with your children.  There are some fantastic, engaging and incredibly interesting talks available on a huge array of topics. Many are just 10-15 minutes long and could be a great stimulus for a really good discussion with your children about a particular topic or even about a particular speaker.

Give it a go – you are the best resource your child has for learning how to be an independent and thoughtful adult.  And you never know, you might even learn something about yourself in the process!