Creating Resilient Kids
Author and Dr Madeline Levine wants to prepare children for an uncertain future, and it all begins with us.
Tell us about yourself.
I grew up as a working-class kid from New York City. My dad was a cop, and he tragically died very young, so I grew up on welfare. It was tough when I was growing up, and that experience helped shape my expectations around childrenʼs development and prompted questions I explored in my work for many years.
Professionally, I have a PhD, and I specialise in childrenʼs developmental psychology. I worked clinically for the first 20 years of my career, but Iʼve been in this field for about 35 years. I wrote my first book about 15 years ago because it became clear to me that certain issues needed to be addressed on a bigger scale than one-on-one therapy. Since then, Iʼve written two more books.
My latest book is Ready or Not: Preparing Kids to Thrive in an Uncertain and Rapidly Changing World. It was released two weeks before Covid, which was rather timely.
What’s the common theme in your books?
Thereʼs an obvious common theme and a less obvious common theme.
The obvious theme is that weʼre having a big increase in mental health issues in the United States and other Western countries. And one of the reasons I think this is happening is because kids are ill-prepared to meet challenges. There has been too much emphasis on performance and competition and not enough on character. And while my books talk about kids, Iʼm really writing about parents, and no one ever talks about that.
If parents believe life is about performance, youʼre not going to be able to communicate to your kids about the things that really matter. Iʼll give you an example. In one of my books, I mention that I wish I had gone to our Jewish temple with my kids more when they were children–it would have been more impactful for them if they saw me participating, but it would have also benefited me. I had three kids and a career–having a community around me would have helped me be better for my children. So, a lot of my writing is actually about parents.
Why does the topic of ill-prepared children and parents fascinate you?
I suspect it was my way of dealing with my dadʼs death. Life is hard. Like I said, we were on welfare, I didnʼt have a dad, and my brother was a mess. When I became a psychologist, Iʼd see kids who really should have been okay. They had interested parents, their families had some money and the kids went to good schools–but they werenʼt okay. All my teachings said that you should be okay if your parents are involved and have good resources. Why werenʼt these kids? These kids were doing drugs and cutting themselves and were suicidal. It didn't make sense.
Today, the rates of anxiety and depression continue to go up despite experts like me saying the same thing for decades: “Let children play! Stop giving them so much homework and help them develop better life skills.” But the policymakers arenʼt listening to what we are saying. Iʼm still interested in why we arenʼt being heard despite the overwhelming evidence showing our children are being hurt.
What trends are you noticing in Western parenting?
I see parents working hard to protect their children from everyday developmental challenges. The kid is afraid to walk past the dog? The parents take them around the block, so they donʼt have to see it. A child doesnʼt like eating food with sauce on it? They make food without sauce, but then the kid has no coping skills to manage situations where theyʼre at a friendʼs house and the food comes with sauce. They sound like theyʼre insignificant events, but they accumulate to a lack of resilience. If I boil it all down, kids are being impaired by their parentsʼ reluctance to let them face challenges.
I recently went to my sonʼs house to watch a big basketball game on the TV, and my granddaughter wanted attention–she was jumping on me and kissing me, trying to get my attention. The easy thing to do would be to give her some attention and miss the game. But I wanted to watch the game, so I told her to knock it off, and Iʼd play later. She sat in a ball at my feet.
In that moment, I could either say, “Iʼm sorry, come here; Grandma loves you.” Or, I can let her experience that feeling a little, so she learns over time that other people have needs too. Of course, I donʼt want her to feel sad, but I also see this situation differently–this is an opportunity for her to meet a challenge, and itʼs these little challenges that prepare kids for inevitable big challenges like death, divorce and all the hard stuff in life.
I think that parents in upper-middle-class families are too worried about their kids being left behind and not getting good enough grades. I think America and countries like it have become incredibly self-centred, and that message extends to parents.
A million articles have been written about self-care, telling parents to get a massage, get their nails done and have a brownie. I did those things too, but weʼve missed the idea that self-care is actually being part of a community that you can withdraw from at times and rely on at other times when you need help. No one is writing about that, and weʼre all focusing on stuff that is trivial in the big scheme of life.
Do you think parents are confused about how to parent?
Yes. Because experts are coming from my angle saying let kids play. Then there are attachment parenting philosophies saying you should be breastfeeding a six-year-old and never letting your child cry. Then there are parenting styles saying you should ask your infant for permission to touch them before changing a nappy. There are so many different points of view.
I believe most mums know how to take care of their children, and nobody knows their child better than they do. But parenting has become a cottage industry, and because most people donʼt live near their parents anymore, the community becomes the transmitter of parenting values. And unfortunately, competition and performance is valued most by the community if youʼre in the class of families that are reasonably well-off financially.
Do you think it’s ever too late to change tactics and build healthier kids?
I think there will be a high price to pay for our current children. Iʼm already seeing it. I recently tried to get a young lady into an eating disorders clinic, and the wait time is a year. We, as a society, need to start thinking about how to turn out more adults interested in working in mental health because we are raising a generation who are going to need help. But, I have hope that some of the kids who were raised to do five hours of homework each day and prioritise materialistic things will revolt as adults and realise it didnʼt help them, and they will ensure their kids have something different.
How has the uncertainty of the pandemic and the climate crisis affected kids?
Here in California, kids are really interested in climate change, and I see that as a positive thing. In my mind, life is about finding meaning, and thereʼs not a lot of meaning in competing and working your arse off. Tackling climate change offers meaning in a similar way that religious participation might have in a previous era.
During the pandemic, I saw a lot of teenagers who were feeling like their experience of life in that moment was really tough. And it was tough–for everyone. We had years stuck in our homes. So, I made some lists of organisations that needed volunteers, and I told my patients: if you want to come and see me, you need to pick an organisation and volunteer at least one day a week. That was the most helpful intervention I have ever made in my career as a psychologist. I said to them: I expect you to do something; I expect you to contribute to the world instead of sitting in your room thinking this is tough. It provided the kids with meaning, and I learned a lot.
What skills do children need to navigate an uncertain future?
Resilient kids are more cooperative than they are competitive. At school, competition and grades are really encouraged, and itʼs every man for himself. But out in the real world, collaboration is a big thing. To become resilient adults, children need to develop skills like critical thinking, flexibility and creativity, and they need to be physically active and play. Kids also need to have a growth mindset, and they need the ability to self-regulate.
When I see patients who are drinking too much, doing drugs, stealing, or cutting themselves–they are all demonstrating an inability to self-regulate. Kids need to learn to read their own emotions, read other peopleʼs emotions and learn healthy strategies for when they feel overwhelmed.
What’s a growth mindset?
Itʼs a concept developed by Carol Dweck. She repeated these experiments hundreds of times where she got a bunch of kids, broke them into two groups and gave them some puzzles to complete. Sheʼd tell one group, “You kids are so brilliant; youʼre so special, and youʼre going to do something amazing with these puzzles.” The other group, sheʼd say nothing to. The kids that do better are the ones she doesn't praise. Thatʼs because, once all the emphasis is on performance, we stop taking risks because we are afraid to fail.
Instead of telling kids how great they are, be curious. If I could pick one attribute that all parents should have, they should be curious as opposed to judgemental. Parents don't need to step in and evaluate everything. Which is hard and not something I always did–I used to say to one of my sons, “If you just worked a little harder, you could turn that B- into a B grade.” But heʼs just fine; the grade didnʼt matter. Instead, I should have said, “What subjects do you like? Do you want to do more of this other thing?”
Parents also need to monitor their own level of anxiety, so we don't pass it on. When our kids are nervous, we become nervous, and in that sense anxiety is catching. Adults need to have self-awareness about what makes them anxious.
What do you want parents to know about resilience and success?
That resilience is probably the most essential life skill because life is tough. I want parents to remember that you didnʼt teach your children to walk by moving their legs. Instead, you enthusiastically encouraged them to get back up when they fell down and to try again. Thatʼs what we need to do more of. Parents also need to remember that teenagers are highly capable, and we should respect their capacity more.
How can families who have experienced climate-related trauma, like flooding, process that trauma while also facing an uncertain future?
I think that people living a climate-related trauma should have some kind of plan B. Buying land probably isnʼt something most people can afford, but there are things we can do that give a small sense of control–especially for young kids. Kids donʼt get to control much about their lives. But, one thing that was helpful during the pandemic was to give children some choices in their day. Do that for climate-related stress too. Include older kids in discussions and plans and provide them with a job to do. Then, we all need to learn how to sit with anxiety and manage it, whether itʼs through meditation, psychotherapy or a great community of friends.
We live in an incredibly anxiety-provoking time, and we need a few tools in our back pockets to help deal with that anxiety. Writing was always a tool to help me cope with life. But during the pandemic, I realised one tool was not enough–I could not write for two-and-a-half years non-stop. So, I chose to add community.
Itʼs also helpful to understand what tools your children use to cope with anxiety. During the pandemic, many parents complained their teenagers were constantly on the phone talking to their friends–well, itʼs not unusual for teenagers to withdraw and be with friends when times are tough. If their coping skill is less healthy, youʼll need to make some corrections and suggest alternatives. But knowing how they cope is important.
What can we do to help ourselves and our kids during uncertain times?
Our brains like predictability because without predictability, life is chaos–it doesnʼt work. We are not happy when things are incredibly unpredictable. In unpredictable times, I think it can be helpful to know your values, what matters to you and what you can do to help.
In relation to climate change–we can model better behaviours in our homes, but we canʼt fix it on our own. But, youʼll probably feel better if youʼre part of a group or community with a similar mission. So, during unpredictable times, maybe go out or encourage your kids to go out and find friends with similar values. Talk to them about values and help them figure out their own. Values give us meaning. And even as adults, we should think about how we can put those values into practice. For example, how many pro bono cases will you take each year, or how many times will you volunteer?
We often live under this guise where things that sound good can be considered good enough, but itʼs not enough. You have to put them into action.
What do you want children or teenagers to know about navigating uncertain times?
My message to teenagers is: you have a big job right now. You have to grow up, figure out who you are, what you want to do, what your values are, the kind of work you might like to do and the kind of person you want to be. I want them to forget about all the competition in life. Focus on having a few good friends and figuring out what matters to you in life. Getting into a ‘betterʼ university or getting top grades doesn't tell you anything about what youʼre capable of doing in life.
I also want kids to know that life is not a straight line–itʼs squiggly with lots of ups and downs. You will have times when youʼre successful and up, and times when you fail. Keep in mind that even though adults look competent, their lives are squiggly lines too. Learn how to deal with the squiggles.
Can you give four top tips to parents for helping their children be more resilient?
- Be curious instead of judgemental.
- Manage your own life well. If you happen to be suffering from depression, chances are your kids may pick up on this. So for your kids (and you!) itʼs really important to take care of yourself.
- Put your values to work, which means communicating them with your kids and living them.
- And, donʼt overvalue performance–itʼs really all about the process. We judge kids by their performance all the time, whether they got an A or a B, but research proves that performance is actually a rather poor predictor of success, so stop focusing on it.
Yes, when times are unpredictable, it can help to write out your narrative. In 100 years, people will be looking back on this moment in history the way we examine the Great Depression or other eras. One of the ways that you get really clear on your values is to write out your story. Itʼs a great way to deal with unpredictability.