Try something out, I want you to attempt three things. First, recall five instances when you face a challenge and you overcame in the last year. Second, recall five instances when you felt overwhelmed and discouraged in the last year. Was it harder to think about challenges you overcame? Did the overwhelm and discouragement memories come with better detail?
Now think of a story in your family that gets told about you or a sibling, or that you tell. How clear is that story in your mind? It’s the story about how you/they were a rascal, or made a bone-headed mistake, or rescued a situation. Whatever that story is, it is told in family gatherings, and something about the story at this point encapsulates the identity (or the family perceived identity) of you/sibling.
The difference in clarity that you have in recalling in these three events/circumstances is based on the repetition with which the story is told. You probably remembered the family story most easily, followed by the negative experience, followed by your story of overcoming. They fall in this order because of repetition. You’ve told/heard the family story a million times. You probably told your the negative story in one way or another at least a few times to co-workers, friends, family. How many times have you regaled of your accomplishment of overcoming your challenges this last year? Can you remember the individual resources you tapped, skills you relied on, efforts you made to overcome that challenge?
This is the position in which our students are growing up. They don’t have a lot of practice talking through and thinking about the successes in their lives. Consequently, they don’t have a strong grasp on what the resources are that they utilized to assert themselves in the past challenge to overcome it. Interestingly, many students prefer to try to forget about a challenge they overcame as soon as they can because of how difficult the task was and the fatigue from having to endure it.
Due to the resistance to analyze the behaviors to that got a student through a crisis/challenge, they engage new challenges without a firm grasp on the way they approached the last hurdle. Subsequently, new challenges are then faced with an inventory of resources. Rather they are engaged with a belief that it is a student’s natural talent that gets them through challenges, not all the hard work and strategy they put into addressing it.
In his book, How Children Succeed, Paul Tough, reports on a study that proved to be a mark of GRIT. The study had students write of a time they used personal strengths to over\come a challenge. They needed to identify what scenario and the resources they utilized including a personal strength to overcome the challenges of the scenario. After writing this, the student took a test. The students who wrote about overcoming a challenge fair significantly better than did the control group. Furthermore, the students that wrote about overcoming challenges ended up having long term benefits. Over the course of their high school career they performed significantly better than the control group. In his book, Flourish, Martin Seligman, PhD, describes an exercise he created based on this study that he called the “Strengths in Challenges.”
So naturally, I’m encouraging you to have more discussions with your children about how they got the A, or dealt with their friend drama, or got through that class with the teacher “that hated them.” Give them an opportunity to explore the resources and they used and how they demonstrated mastery. To get started, talk to your child about what they think their strengths are and what you would say they are (or take the Values-in-Action (VIA) on the authentichappiness.org website). Once you both have an idea of them, ask them how they used their strengths to get them through a their challenge. Ask them about what resources they used, who they turned to for help, and what they found most supportive. Check in about their what they’ve overcome during the week, after report cards, or during your celebratory milestones (birthdays, New Years, graduations, etc.). Then the next time your child is faced with a challenge think through with them what strategies they might use to overcome it.
Remember how earlier we established that retelling stories encapsulates a family member’s identity, it actually has a role in forming it. The process of retelling the victories develops an identity for your children that will solidify a confidence that they are intrinsically capable to tackle challenges as they come. Your child’s perseverance is also the legacy you want to tell of your child.