Raising Resilient, Responsible, and Resourceful Kids
We all want the best for our children, but have we provided them with what they need for success?
In June 2019, I polled an entrepreneur group on Facebook with this question: What is the one thing you wish your parents taught you? Out of the ninety-eight responses I received, 36 percent wished they had learned money management, 35 percent self-confidence, and 20 percent love and support. 11
There are many schools of thought in terms of the best parenting approach. I group them roughly into two camps: The Tiger Mom (Eastern) camp believes discipline and strong work habits are the keys to success. The name comes from the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua, a Yale law school professor. 12 The Western approach, which I’ve dubbed the Free-Range Mom camp, values individuality and support for children’s well-being.
I like the structured child-rearing from the Tiger Mom camp, and the supportive element from the Free-Range Mom camp, so I came up with a hybrid mothering method, the Experiential Nurturing model. The idea is to allow children to build confidence and character by developing problem-solving skills and critical thinking through life experiences. The goal of this model is to teach children to be the 3 R’s—resilient, responsible, and resourceful.
Most new moms stress over their children’s physical growth and development milestones during the early years. Pay special attention to your kids’ personalities and preferences. Notice what types of activities get them excited, and what tires them easily. Are they adventurous or cautious? Do they enjoy books and stories or prefer working with their hands? Instead of correcting their natural inclinations to fit your preference or making them act like their siblings, identify their positive traits and provide relevant experience to further develop their interests and skills. The Experiential Nurturing model focuses on creating opportunities to support children’s natural talents while allowing them to learn independently to build confidence and resilience.
As I mentioned in Chapter 2, our job is to figure out how to maximize the effect of our strengths while not letting our weaknesses stop us. As parents, we need to do the same for our children. When they grow up, they’ll have the knowledge and courage to compete in the real world.
Through research on the indicators for long-term success, I found two characteristics crucial in child development: curiosity and grit.
To nurture my son’s curious mind, I provided two primary experiences when he was little: reading and traveling.
Reading—To See the World through Words
Reading not only helps children with cognitive functions such as creativity and imagination, but it also helps them discover their interests so parents can facilitate their growth.
I started reading books to Ethan when he was about four months old. By then, he could move his little fingers on the board books and babble after me. Looking back, it was just as beneficial for me as for him. After a long day at school, the best relaxation for me was to be silly with him, talking in funny voices, and watch his facial expressions change as the animal characters went through their adventures.
I read to Ethan every day until he could read on his own. Still, he enjoyed snuggling up to me and reading the pages while I continued to perfect my vocal abilities. By the time he turned seven, I had borrowed for him the middle-grade books on the New York Times bestseller list from the local library. By age ten, he had finished reading The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Although there were many words he didn’t understand, he enjoyed the story.
When he was in fifth grade, I shared my reading list with him, which ranged from Pulitzer Prize-winning novels such as All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr and Montana 1948 by Larry Watson to nonfiction books in neurobehavioral science, business management, memoirs, wilderness and survival. Gradually, I recognized his interest in philosophy and neurobehavioral science. To support his newfound interest, I searched for the best books to further his learning on the subjects. When we attend parties or gatherings, our friends are often surprised by Ethan’s depth of knowledge and unique perspective.
Traveling—To See How Big the World Is, Yet How Similar People Are
Bring your children to places to further their learning and understanding. Travel as far as you can so their eager eyes can witness the differences in nature and culture.
Don’t just bring your kids to the theme parks for thrill rides and overpriced food. Yes, it’s fun, but they learn little at those places. For the moms holding season tickets to Disneyland or Disney World, think again for your children’s future. Many great sights are free to visit and offer so much more for young minds to explore.
Chu and I have taken Ethan overseas every year since he was four years old. We’ve been to many countries in Europe, Asia, Australia/Oceania, and America. Next, we want to visit Africa. We want to learn with him about the world.
If you can’t afford to travel overseas, travel domestically. Take a road trip, and talk to each other on the long drive to ask questions and receive answers. My favorite road trip was to Yellowstone National Park in 2010. We drove from San Francisco to Jackson Hole in two days, passed by the glaciated landscape of Yosemite National Park, enjoyed the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in Salt Lake City, and watched rodeo in Cody, Wyoming.
Once we reached the park, we camped inside for seven nights, each day hiking different trails and teaching Ethan about nature preservation. Chu taught Ethan the science behind geothermal effect when we admired the majestic Old Faithful geyser that has erupted about every ninety minutes since 2000. 15 We watched a mother bear going grocery shopping in the woods with her cubs; we found reindeer behind our tent when we took photos of the spectacular sunrise; we saw a herd of bison cross the road in front of our SUV and were in awe of their massive size and bloodshot eyes; we saw beautiful wildflowers blooming in the valley where creeks ran free, and those giant trees whose names Ethan had to look up on the computer once we returned home.
The second characteristic crucial in child development is grit. The Cambridge Dictionary defines grit as bravery and strength of character. I associate grit with conscientiousness, resilience, and courage.
Many remarkable people in this world succeed not because of their exceptional talents but because of their reactions to challenges and adversities. They push on in the headwind, not letting self-pity and excuses stop them. To build your children’s confidence, stamina, and tenacity, you must provide them the experiences centered on developing these positive traits. Build your children’s characters when they are young. You can start with these five areas:
Practical life skills
When your children are little, encourage them to try new things. When they get frustrated, instead of stepping in and solving problems for them, help them analyze the situations and come up with their own solutions. Let your kids know no one can be good at everything, but everyone is good at something. Help them recognize and amplify their strengths through trial and error. Tell them not to compare to others because everyone is different.
Some kids have self-esteem issues, frequently the result of failing to meet their parents’ high expectations. Eager parents set extremely high standards for their kids, leaving no room for errors. When children can’t keep up with the demand, they believe they’re a total failure. In just the first three months of 2019, two students committed suicide at Stanford University because of the mounting pressure to do well. 16 What a tragedy, which could be prevented by infusing kids with the right message when they were young: no one is perfect. Their best is good enough.
Not doing well in school doesn’t necessarily mean there’s no future for the academically challenged. If your kids struggle with school despite genuine effort to learn, maybe traditional education isn’t for them. Instead of forcing them to enter college, consider a trade school where a hands-on occupation might suit them better. Countless self-made millionaires had no formal education; their will to succeed and ability to adapt make their achievement possible.
You can create small challenges to help your children build confidence and resilience. Allow your sons and daughters opportunities to be proud of overcoming something themselves.
When my family traveled in France in late 2008, we heard the news that Barack Obama had won the presidential election. That day, we took Ethan to the iconic Eiffel Tower. We asked Ethan if he would like to climb the 704 steps with us to the second-floor viewpoint. Only the strongest kid could do it, I told him. He was eager to prove his strength. We set out climbing. I held his hand, and we went up slowly with frequent breaks. While we rested at about halfway, a young man and his girlfriend saw us. The young man told the girlfriend if a four-year-old could do it, she could too. Ethan was so proud of himself after we arrived at the top. This experience must have boosted his self-confidence. Before the trip, he mostly spoke phrases; after the trip, he told stories in complete sentences with plenty of made-up words to enhance his speech. The transformation delighted us.
Now that Ethan is a teenager, he wants to bulk up his muscles. About eight months ago, he decided to do 200 pushups a day to build his chest and back muscles. After three months, Ethan increased the number to 300 a day. By this rate, he said, he would reach a million pushups in nine years. So far, he has kept his promise, even on the days he is sick. I admire his grit. I’m proud of providing a good foundation for his goal-oriented mindset.
Practical Life Skills
While technology brings us efficiency and convenience, it takes away the opportunities to learn life skills. Texting short, abbreviated phrases to each other trumps face-to-face conversations. Food deliveries through smartphone apps beats cooking at home. The more advanced technology is, the more dependent we become. It isn’t difficult to imagine that in a global energy crisis or the breakdown of the internet network, few will know how to function and survive.
One mom told me that her son at college in Hawaii called to ask her how to unclog his toilet with a plunger. It sounds like a joke, but it isn’t funny. Basic life skills such as cleaning up after oneself, doing laundry, making simple repairs at home teach kids responsibility, discipline, and independence.
During our frequent camping trips, we often ask Ethan to help prepare easy and delicious meals with natural ingredients. He has a group of friends he knew since kindergarten. Ethan has made beef kebabs for their beach cookouts, organized trips to various museums, and hiked in city parks.
American education is insufficient in money management. Even some adults struggle with financial terms such as compound interest. It’s important to have age-appropriate money talks with children. Moms can help kids understand the value of healthy spending based on the calculation of return on investment. Exposing children to books on money management for kids is a good start. It’s also important to explain to them the process of decision making for big-ticket items in the house.
On our overseas trips, we give Ethan an allowance for him to manage and ask him to take charge of grocery shopping. When in Norway, he was the one to select which items to buy for maximum value, paid for them, and made sure the change was correct. If you want your kids to grow up smart, responsible, and independent, start training them early. While people say it’s never too late to learn new skills, well, I say it’s never too early to learn either.
Two years ago, my husband Chu and I opened a custodial brokerage account for Ethan using his savings. Ethan’s job was to read the earnings report and analyze the industry trend. We introduced him to Warren Buffett’s investment strategies. Chu helped him decide the goal of his portfolio and the level of risk tolerance most fitting for his age and assets. We want Ethan to acquire financial planning skills by thinking long-term. Sometimes, Ethan gets hung up on the down-trending of his stocks. He complains how many cars he had to wash to get the money he lost. We told him not to worry about the temporary market fluctuations. Investment is a long game; always focus on the end result.
Kids don’t truly understand the value of money until they have earned it themselves. Instead of telling kids to focus on schoolwork all the time, ask them to take up age-appropriate jobs to practice real-life skills.
At age twelve, Ethan asked his older cousins if they would like him to wash their cars for ten dollars each. Everyone said yes, and Ethan did a fantastic job of making their vehicles shine. He saved the money for his stock account. This past summer, he just finished his first paid internship at the San Francisco Police Department through a youth development program. He was so proud to receive his very first paycheck in the mail! Many cities have such programs introducing teens to various job opportunities. Check out your children’s school website, local public libraries, or city government website for information on internship and application requirement.
Do children need to learn to play a musical instrument or a sport, or join the robotics team? More and more kids burn out doing various activities assigned by their well-intentioned parents. You should include children in the discussion about which activities are necessary and which are not. Not that you should let kids call the shots. Find the activities that best fit their strengths, and present your children with options to choose from. Using this supervised autonomy approach, kids are more likely to enjoy their activities rather than simply going through the motions.
In Amy Chua’s memoir, she shares that her older daughter, Sophia, made her piano debut at Carnegie Hall at age fourteen. Amy instilled strict rules for structuring Sophia’s life around piano training. I admire Sophia’s extraordinary musical achievement, but I can’t embrace Amy’s parenting approach. I introduced Ethan to the piano when he was six. He told me he hated it after a year. I stopped the piano lessons. A few years later, he picked up the violin on his own, practicing often with no one asking. I thought violin would be the go-to instrument for his musical expression. Last year, he switched to a guitar. As a mom, I can’t predict or dictate what he likes and how he wants to live his life. My job is to provide guidance and support when he needs help to pursue his areas of interest.
Spend quality time with your children. Instead of cramming their lives with activities they don’t care for, talk to them and listen to their concerns. Be there when they need you, and step aside when they want to be independent. Before long, kids will move away from home to a new city and start a new life. The deep bond between you and your children is worth so much more than the long list of activities they can put on their resume.
I know you have to work, and there are always tons of things to do around the house, but stop what you are doing and listen to your children when they wish to talk. Let them know you’ll never judge them or force them to be somebody else. Be patient with them. Allow them to learn at their own pace.
Space for Teens
Being a teenager is a sensitive and confusing time. These not-still-children-but-not-yet-adults try to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives. Moms often feel anxious over the sudden emotional detachment of their once sweet babies. Allow teens the time and space to sort out the confusion and handle peer pressure. The more you respect their individuality, the more respectful they will become. Being inquisitive and spying on your children will damage the trust between you and push them farther away. Think about your own teenage years, how you resented anyone invading your space. We were in their shoes only a few decades ago. We thought our parents knew nothing and we knew everything.
There will be moments they want to talk about the things they can’t figure out on their own. Listen carefully to what worries them before jumping to conclusions and criticizing them. Use those opportunities to show them how much you love them and want to help them do well.
Ethan is now at the age where he gives only one- or two-word answers to my questions. He has more words for his friends. So I just ask if I can hug him. When we hug, I always tell him I love him. I’ll say, “Whenever you need me, just say it,” to which he always replies, “I will.”
Yesterday, I took Ethan to see his pediatrician for a well-child checkup. We had a good conversation on our way there. I told him if he had concerns about his body, he could discuss them with his doctor, and I would step out. Waiting in the hallway, I kept myself busy answering emails. Ten minutes later, the exam room door was still closed. I wondered if there was something serious that Ethan had kept from me. He must have read my face when he finally came out of the room. “No worries,” he said with a shy smile, “Everything is fine.”
Don’t worry if you’ve done little to nurture your children’s creativity and grit. Start now by reading to them or with them. Take them to places they haven’t been to. Build a connection with your children as soon as you can. Give them small challenges to build confidence. Teach them life skills that will benefit them for the rest of their lives. Improve their financial literacy. Encourage them to take up age-appropriate jobs to understand the value of money. Include them in the discussion about extracurricular activity arrangements. Respect their space when they need it. Be emotionally available when they need reassurance, encouragement, and a healthy dose of praise. If your parents have been your role models, carry on the same role to your children. If they haven’t been, be the parent you wish you had when you were young.
Don’t feel guilty about what you haven’t done. As long as you love your children and communicate that love, they’ll know. Children are incredibly curious and forgiving. Your love and understanding will make a world of difference in their lives. They’ll think of you when they teach their own children.
Love your children by giving them the opportunities to learn and be the 3 R’s—resilient, responsible, and resourceful.
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