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Resiliency: Finding Encouraging Words

April 1, 2010

photo courtesy of Fotolia

“Happiness is not a goal it is a by-product.”
Eleanor Roosevelt

Just what is resiliency? Strictly speaking, it’s the ability to recovery readily from adversity.  Sooner or later, no matter how happy and blessed we are, we’re faced with some sort of adversity. We all want our kids to have a childhood rich with happiness and fond memories, but it can’t be all fun and games.  Gratitude for the wonderful stuff and rising to the challenges are learned skills. Often the learning of these skills is as tough as the event(s) that trigger them.

With regard to children, what exactly does that mean? And how to parents who seek to raise happy, healthy, curious, kind children achieve that?  Model a positive attitude, an ability to move forward in the face of challenge, demonstrate persistence.  There are many things you can do, but here’s what you cannot do – you cannot “make ” a person resilient. Like all aspects of development, resiliency is part temperament, part nurture and part maturity.  There are no quick fixes because when we rescue our children from adversity and mistakes, we’re really telling them they are incapable of taking care of themselves.  Show them they can solve problems, take care of themselves and bounce back with the language you choose and use, and you’ll be off to a fine start in developing resiliency.

Words have a powerful capacity to influence children’s sense of self and their relationships with other. The words adults choose need to convey not only clear expectations, but also our faith in their desire and ability to do their best.  The words we choose also help a child see that effort, not perfection, is valued.

As Paula Denton, Ed., Director of the Responsive Classroom, writes,
When we say what we mean and use a kind and straightforward tone, children learn that they can trust us. (read more in her article in their blog).  Resilient kids aren’t always seeking approval from adults. And while they may be disappointed when they don’t achieve the grades, score, win they hope for, they also don’t fall apart because they recognize their efforts.  In fact, they can often analyze what happened and verbalize what they would do differently the next time.  Often kids who have trouble bouncing back from challenge and adversity are the same ones who hear a lot of praise for the work from adults they admire.

If you are looking for ways to start fostering resiliency,  start small.  Think about those positive words you share with your child.  Are they a form of praise or encouragement? You need to understand the subtle, yet powerful, difference.

Simply put, praise makes children dependent on adults for qualitative approval. The gold star. The “good job!’  Most of us like to hear those words sometimes, but when that’s all you get, boy do they authenticity and meaning.  The shiny star dulls as the novelty wears off. Then you start hearing things like, “Do you like it? Did I do a good job mommy?”  A child who is praised often learns that adults hold the power and ability to evaluate effort and performance. We’re stealing their joy by doling out the words that assign actions joy or lack thereof.  Praise often leads to an emphasis on perfection or product, not effort or self-sufficiency, and an incessant need to seek approval and attention.

On the flip side, encouragement shows that you notice and recognize the effort, skill and outcome a child puts forth.  Further, it helps them develop the self-awareness and self-control to reflect and evaluate their own efforts. By naming something specific about a child’s appropriate behavior or efforts, you build that internal voice that helps a child develop confidence, competence and control.  Over time, encouragement allows children to see you value the process and they will, too. It also permits children to develop their own limits to reach beyond the limits set up by adult’s praise. As it becomes a learned habit, it’s the energy that lets a person pull themselves up by the bootstraps to try again or face a new day with a positive attitude.

Are these two forms of feed back diametrically opposed? Not always.  You can use them together – in fact, using them together is a way to hone your understanding of the different.  For example:

Parent: Hey!  Good job on that ramp! (qualitative judgement, i.e., praise). You watched the other skaters  and learned some tips. All your practice paid off.  You landed that 180 off the rail!” (specific, acknowledges effort and accomplishment, i.e., encouragement)

When you tie the qualitative statement (good job! great work) to something concrete and specific about effort, you give them your feedback and help them see the pay off of their effort.  Another way to break out of the praise habit is to turn the question back to them. Good teachers do this reflexively.
A child finishes a sculpture she’s worked on for several days, using multiple models for ideas and tools to accomplish her vision for the piece.

Child: I’m finished!
Teacher: I noticed you looked at several other sculptures and you found some interesting sticks to carve out their hair.  What do you think of the finished piece? Tell me how you made the hair…:

These questions allow them to reflect and analyze their own work. These type of responses don’t always come easily, but like anything else, practice will help these words become a part of everyday life. Listen to yourself – do you offer praise that teaches a child to be dependent on your approval or do you offer encouragement which builds self-sufficiency and resiliency?

To read more, check out:the Responsive Classroom newsletter, featuring Paula Denton’s work.  Also, check out succinct review of Alfie Kohn’s research Five Reasons to Stop Saying “Good Job!” In the column to the right, you can also click on title available through

2 Comments leave one →
  1. worldtravelmom permalink
    April 2, 2010 3:47 am

    This article is spot on. I thought that I was building my son’s confidence by telling him “good job” all the time but then realized that maybe I was off the mark when he kept looking for validation, asking that same question “Did I do a good job Mommy?” It stirred feelings of sadness in me after a while as I wondered about the development of his self-esteem. Now, I engage him more with my responses, asking him questions after giving him praise but I have a clearer understanding now of how I should’ve approached things.

  2. Margaret permalink
    April 16, 2010 3:20 pm

    Hi, Lisa,

    I really enjoyed this post and it hit home both for my teaching and mom self. It also made me think of the book Nurture Shock — which has a great chapter about the importance of telling children success results from effort not because they are “smart.” Smartness is something they can’t control so when they encounter trouble or setbacks academically many children who have been told “You are so smart” start to think they might not be. But, children who have been told in the face of success — “You really worked hard on that, and I saw you keep trying even when you messed up” — realize that they can control outcomes and persist longer.

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