On our trips to Uganda, one of the things that I noticed most about the children we met was how resilient they were. I couldn't understand with my white American male brain why these children seemed to be so joyful in the midst of what looked like overwhelming poverty, suffering, and a lack of basic resources. The homes we visited had dirt floors, bare walls, no running water, and no electricity or plumbing. In addition to that, everyone had experienced profound loss. I listened to one story after another of orphans who had experienced the death of one or both parents, and mothers who had lost one or multiple children for a multitude of reasons. Yet, every kid I encountered exuded joy and stoic contentment.
When I would come back to the U.S. and hear other children, and my own, complain about things like not getting to have their favorite piece of candy while standing in line at the grocery store, or not getting to have the newest pair of $100 designer jeans; it would make me cringe. Most American children have more than enough and well beyond what any Ugandan child I met has, however; many kids in the U.S. are massively more discontent in life and whine at the drop of a hat if they don't have or get what they want when they want it. Why is that these Ugandan kids seemed to be so much more resilient and joyful with considerably less resources and a more difficult life than American kids? I know there is probably more to it, but this is what I boil it down to: America has, effectively, run out of problems.
I know that sounds controversial and too simplistic to some, but let me explain. Americans live in the most comfortable society in history. The problems I'm talking about in developing nations, like Uganda, are problems of survival. I know there are exceptions, but most Americans don't have to struggle to find enough water, food, and shelter to survive. And, if you're reading this, you don't have the problems the kids in Uganda have to deal with. With our abundance of resources we have less challenges and struggles in our daily lives. Over time, our lack of experiencing regular discomfort has led to a society which, I argue, is becoming less resilient. So, when bad things happen or when life doesn't go the way we want it - we are less prepared to take that challenge head on and overcome it in a healthy manner.
In an effort to make it even more comfortable and less "offensive" for American children, parents seem to have significantly eased up on disciplining their children, leading to a prevalence of coddling never seen before. This coddling has also lead to a lack of respect for others, a focus on satisfying the self, and a lack of discipline. In contrast, nearly every Ugandan child I met, walked up to me, put out their hand and shook mine, and bowed their head out of respect to me as an adult. Honestly, their manners were so good that it caught me off guard. In America, some parents can't get their kids to be still for three seconds. Or, you get a "yeah" or "uh huh" instead of a yes sir or no sir, when you ask them a question. Call me old school, but one of the things that really irritates me, and is getting pervasive in our society, is hearing a child call an adult by their first name. Why does it seem like our kids are getting less respectful and more undisciplined? I think it ties back into mommy and daddy not wanting their child to be challenged, uncomfortable, or to feel bad about themselves.
Don't get me wrong, I'm not interested in my daughters constantly struggling, having to live a hard life, or having low self esteem. But, kids who are protected their whole lives from learning how to deal with difficulty are being set up to be emotionally weak and have the potential to be found in the corner in the fetal position sucking their thumb when life goes wrong. Additionally, our preoccupation with our own "self care" is creating a culture of victimhood and a generation of easily offended whiners. Our colleges are becoming full of kids who are more preoccupied with taking selfies and protesting "micro aggressions" than becoming productive members of society. I want to tell these kids to go to Africa or Haiti, and see how offended they would be by only getting to eat one meal a day or to have to drink dirty water to survive.
I wouldn't want to live anywhere else on the planet and I'm thankful to live in a country that has produced a society with so much opportunity, resources, and wealth. So, what can we do to help our children build more resilience so they can better handle difficulties in life?
Here are 4 things I think can help:
1. Put your kids in a position to have opportunities to fail or lose. I think every kid needs to be involved in a sport, or FFA, or any type competitive activity where they get exposed to disappointment and have the opportunity to lose after putting in hard work. They need to learn that even with hours of hard work, sweat, and tears, you can still lose. My work ethic and discipline as an adult is a direct byproduct of competing in sports from the age of 5. I learned how to win, to lose, be disappointed, and how to push myself beyond my own limits. Most importantly, I learned how to get back up off the ground and get back in the game after getting knocked down or losing. You realize there is always a next time, another game, or another tomorrow.
2. Don't give your kids everything they want. When I see a kid throwing an uncontrollable fit or screaming at their mother, I see a kid who may be getting what they want a little too often. (Obviously, this excludes kids who may have an emotional disorder.) Some children don't know how to handle not getting what they want and they have learned that acting out will get them what they want. That child has a higher probability of turning into an unhealthy adult. Life doesn't give you what you want all the time, so it's better they get used to it at an early age.
3. Teach your children to take responsibilty for themselves. If we are rescuing our kids out of every problem, they will have a harder time learning how to pick themselves up off the floor and becoming self reliant. I don't want my daughters to be dependent on anyone for their physical or emotional well being in order to be healthy adults. I want them to have a certain amount of grit, and to learn at an early age that they have what it takes inside themselves to be what they set their heart and mind to.
4. Get your kids involved in helping others. Our children need to know, see, and help others who are less fortunate than them. They need to learn how to appreciate what they have and to get a sense for what others struggle with. For example, you and your family could sponsor a child from the community I've written about at http://murole.hopechest.org/sponsor/, or take your kids to serve at a homeless shelter. Whatever it is, we need to teach our children that in almost every situation, someone else is suffering worse than them. I don't say this because anyone needs our pity, but because we need be inspired by the resilience others are able to muster in their cicumstances.
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