Parents can turn obstacles into opportunities by teaching their kids to trust them, and themselves, enough to do likewise.
My mother taught me to look adversity straight in the eye and give it a wink—and it didn’t happen in a conversation, or through some elaborate plan devised to coach me in resilience. I learned to overcome obstacles, to overcome anything, by watching her, just as my kids now watch me.
In our quest to give our kids perfect childhoods, how often do we end up stunting their capacity to help us achieve that very same thing? None of us intends to shortchange our sons and daughters when we rush to clear all their paths and defang all eventualities, but that’s often the result when we overprotect instead of trying to be brave together.
Good fortune takes many shapes
In my family, we didn’t really have a choice to be overprotected. When my brother and I were young, our mom worked a full-time job while putting herself through college. Because of this she wasn’t around as much as she’d have liked, and she was practically a baby herself when she had us. Still just a teenager then, she was a single mother by the time she was 23. I was four, and my brother was five.
She told me years later that she regretted very little about those early choices: to marry and have kids young, and to strike out on her own when the circumstances required it of her. She did, however, express regret at not being able to spend more time with us, at not being more involved in teaching us things hands-on. I think she actually would have loved the luxury of being an overprotective parent, but she didn’t have the resources required to make such a choice.
Show, not tell
Years later I tried to help my mom understand what she did give us. She believed we were capable of developing as much self-reliance as she had, and by checking her innate overprotective maternal instincts, she gave my brother and me the chance to work out many difficulties on our own, to smirk at failure while navigating our own unique roads to success. She modeled the kind of resilience that can be learned but that can’t easily be taught.
“Helicopter parenting” hadn’t yet emerged as a label in pop culture, nor had its counterpoint, “free-range parenting,” but the latter was alive and well in our home. Luckily for us it was augmented with help from our grandmother and aunt who pitched in to make sure we had the scaffolding we needed while our mom was busy slaying dragons for our little family out in the world, a place where she was saddled with the stereotype of the overworked, single mother in our sometimes judgey community.
I wish she knew then what I know now: that her best efforts were good enough. That demonstrating fierce resolve is better than trying to teach it.
Adversity as a refining tool
My mom wasn’t dealt a particularly good hand of cards in life, but she learned to “play a poor hand well,” in the words of Robert Louis Stevenson, a childhood favorite author. That resolve and ingenuity is what I recall from my earliest years, along with the love, stability, and basic material necessities that are equally important to growing kids.
Instead of carting me around to the kind of fully-packed schedule of “enrichment classes” my friends had after school, I would tag along with my mom to her grad school evening classes and could picture myself as one of those motivated students from a very young age. I learned the art of house-flipping, my mom’s early means of augmenting a modest income and trading up from a small rental to a small house to a slightly bigger house. I learned all kinds of mom-hacks for stretching a dollar like shopping for next year’s clothes during sale season. I learned gratitude for the things we did have and the drive to attain more myself.
Because she taught me how to think, not what to think, I was free to choose my own path.
Tenacious is what tenacious does
On the surface my mother and I seem nothing alike—she’s a developer in Southern California, bossing around architects and men in hard hats on construction sites and negotiating with city councils. I carved out a career in Manhattan as a journalist covering fashion and society. Because she taught me how to think, not what to think, I was free to choose my own path. But beneath both of our veneers is similar evidence of her motto “Tough times don’t last, but tough people do.”
Next gen grit
I first tested out my mom’s example by entering a British Vogue writing contest every year of high school to win a summer internship; four years in a row I submitted my half-baked essays and failed. But when I was able to wrangle student international working papers in college, I just showed up in London at Vogue’s doorstep, defying them not to take me on as summer intern. Good timing accounted for much of my early career momentum, but so too did my mom’s example of viewing hurdles as opportunities. At the time I had no idea that the rarified world of glossy magazines was intended only for the kids of rich, glamorous parents…and by the time I did, I was already entrenched.
My turn at the wheel
Busy with my career, I ended up becoming a parent later in life than my mother, and I now find myself raising my own kids as a single mom. I’m lucky enough to have a younger sister who helps me fill out our small family village, as well as a great ex-husband who I still count as a friend. Like my mom and sister, he’s good at helping me shut down my inner helicopter parent. Because she’s in there—fully fueled and always ready to airlift my boys through two perfectly curated childhoods. It takes all of my hard-earned resolve to reign her in, to remind myself how much I benefited from tackling my own challenges when I was young, and how much it meant to me when I overcame them.
Some of my most vivid memories of growing up revolve around I-did-it-myself moments, but for many years I unintentionally denied my own kids that crucial building block. Like other parents, I became so focused on raising good kids that I didn’t recognize I already had good kids. It was my son’s first teacher who told me a game-changing quote from Dr. Maria Montessori: “Never help your child with a task at which he feels he can succeed.”
C.S. Lewis wrote “Hardship often prepares ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny,” and who doesn’t want that for their kids? In fact, we want it so much that our instincts often lead us to swooping in to carve out that destiny for them, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson added, “Life is a succession of lessons which must be lived to be understood.” My kids deserve the same chance to earn their stripes that I had, and while it isn’t easy to chart the parenting path my mom navigated by virtue of tough circumstances, I eventually learned, as she did, that a child’s failures are equally as important as their successes in revealing their greatest, grittiest selves.