You just wrapped your head around how to implement the findings of that famous Stanford University marshmallow experiment. If those four-year-olds who could delay gratification and wait to eat their marshmallow tended to be more successful, then you can easily add, "You'll just have to wait, honey," to your lexicon – especially if it might foster your kid's ability to self-regulate. But then, your child's preschool teacher mentions she needs help developing resilience. And what is that new Disney series you see in the Scholastic catalogue with leaden titles like Responsibility and Perseverance? Is that the same thing? And which of the nouveau parenting concepts will help your child grow up to be a well-rounded, successful, happy adult?
Unearned self-esteem is on the outs. Grit is in. Self-regulation is trending upward. There are benefits in letting them fail. It's important to nurturing creativity and innovation. All these important theories and principles for building hardy character traits come courtesy of an avalanche of parenting and pop-science books, neuroscience, parenting coaches, TED Talks and educators.
"Every year there are new buzzwords you have to learn," says Toronto parenting and health writer Lisa Bendall, who has been vocal about how the parent-industrial complex has gone into overdrive. "It's very persuasive and it does its job. We have a whole industry geared to making parents feel like idiots, like we can't do it alone. And you have to keep reinventing it, so that's where you get the new buzzwords."
We parents have an insatiable appetite for the semiotics of child development. We're learning that our overpraising has hurt, not helped, our kids' self-esteem – thanks to a flurry of work on the topic that peaked about four years ago with psychologist Polly Young-Eisendrath's The Self-Esteem Trap and Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's Nurtureshock: New Thinking About Children. We know that grit and character are hugely important, due to journalist Paul Tough's recent How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character. With each new iteration, a different insight gets amplified. Who wants to miss the nugget that could make the difference for their kid? Marketers know we all want to do right by our children.
And in a rapidly changing world, resilience, creativity and innovation are especially positioned to appeal to parents. Parents aren't immune to the idea-hungry culture, one that hero-worships the late Steve Jobs as a man who fell down, got back up again and rocked the world with his brilliant ideas. Up next? Think, perhaps, independence and competitiveness. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's new book out this month is Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing and focuses on the merits of competition – and yes, there's advice for parents in it, too.
Montreal parenting coach Danusia Lapinksi is leading a workshop at the Sedona Counselling Centre on resilience later this month; it's already been moved to a larger venue to accommodate demand. Based on the book by psychologist Martin Seligman, The Optimistic Child: A Proven Program to Safeguard Children Against Depression and Build Lifelong Resilience, the workshop is aimed at coaching parents not to gloss over a child's difficult moments, but to talk them through it each step of the way.
The demand, she says, stems from a generation of parents who are trying to shake their helicoptering tendencies, but aren't quite sure how. "Our parents left us alone. It was: Survive, life will teach you. Kids became resilient more naturally," she says.
Still, Lapinski tells her clients and workshop participants that resilience is just one theory. "I always tell parents you have to decide if it's right for you. If it resonates with your values and needs. Everyone's different and you have to question the ideas you hear."
Nadine Silverthorne sifts through these trends as the Toronto-based managing editor of the Today's Parent magazine website. As a mother of two, she advises parents to pluck only the buzzwords that appeal to them or have some use.
Sometimes, just a fragment will do. After reading Pamela Druckerman's Bringing Up Bébé, which explored the lessons that French parents might teach us North Americans, Silverthorne adopted the elegantly simple phrase "The kitchen is closed until morning," to address her children's incessant requests for bedtime snacks. (And Druckerman, too, is feeding the beast once again, with a new follow-up primer of tips out next week – Bébé Day by Day: 100 Keys to French Parenting. The book cuts out all the nicely written anecdotes and focuses on digestible, practical advice.)
At home, Silverthorne is also focusing on a few self-regulation tips with her daughter to curb her heavy "interruptus" phase. And she's been trying to boost her son's "executive function" with timers and visual charts "that will burn grooves into his brain so that it becomes natural to him."
But amid all this relearning of the basics our parents instilled in us without trying, tidy theories can bump up against reality. Slowing down long enough to see your preschooler through the character-building challenges of pulling on boots and snow pants and mastering a sticky zipper can derail everyone's morning. Lapinski's tough-love advice for parents: Set your alarm a few minutes early to accommodate.
Others suggest that consistency might be more important than any single fresh idea. If you're setting that alarm, do it every day. Period.
"Children are so sensitive. If you don't seem certain, they're like, 'What the heck am I supposed to do? Am I making mommy happy, am I not making mommy happy?'" says Silverthorne.
It's worth remembering that none of this is rocket science. Many of these books and theories are seductive precisely because they serve as a reminder to use common sense. As Silverthorne says, it's important to remember "you are the adult."
WAIT. HOW CAN I BOOST MY KID'S RESILIENCE?
A few tips from Montreal parenting coach Danusia Lapinski:
Model optimism: Don't come home and say "Work sucks." As a parent, your pessimistic attitude about life can impair your child's ability to imagine positive outcomes.
Teach your child how to be optimistic: Find ways to explain that challenges can be overcome. There are ways to improve situations that might seem negative.
Look for challenges: Offer experiences that will help your child master a skill or face a challenge. Then, tell them what they've done well. Be specific: It can be about not asking for help immediately, or getting to the first stage of a solution.
Encourage your child to keep going: If it looks like a sticky zipper is about to cause a meltdown, coach him through it. Don't immediately leap in to do it for him. "Say, 'No, keep going.'"