Resilience through circumstance

College Blog Friday, 20 Sept 2019

It is a universally acknowledged truth that previous generations were somehow tougher and more resilient than the those that have followed. Conversely, each new generation is somehow softer and less able to cope with the vicissitudes of life than the one that preceded it.

When I reflect on the past few generations of my own family, there may be some historical reasons for this. My great-grandparents’ generation were born in the drought of the 1890s, fought in World War 1, struggled with poverty through the Great Depression, and then experienced the horrors of World War 2. Similarly, my grandparents were raised during the Great Depression, fought in World War 2 and then raised their families in a world recovering from conflict. My parents lived through the Cold War, served in the Army, then raised my siblings and I in the recession of the 1990s. My new iPhone froze for almost twenty minutes last Thursday, and it really ruined my afternoon. Young people, though… Oh boy are they weak!

For many years I have been having conversations with parents at times of crisis in their children’s lives, and consider it an honour to do so. Up to one in four young people will experience some form of mental health disorder throughout their teenage years, and it is important that we normalise discussion of this and provide appropriate support both to them and to their families. It is only in recent times, however, that I have begun to hear words such as “triggering”, and “traumatising”, used to describe interactions that would, when I was a teenager, have been considered a normal part of growing up.

I had a conversation some time ago in which a sincere and caring parent told me that their child was triggered by other students greeting them. Similarly, I had a heart-felt conversation with a parent more recently in which they expressed concern that their child was traumatised by a conversation in which a teacher chastised their child over the state of their uniform and demanded that their child be removed from the teacher’s Homeroom to prevent further harm. It may be that we have unthinkingly adopted these phrases into our everyday language and use them loosely. More concerning, however, is the possibility that these young people were indeed triggered and traumatised by such innocuous and everyday interactions. My fear is that the latter is true.

In this idea I am supported by the research of Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, who in 2018 released their landmark study, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure. While their research was conducted in the United States, the parallels for Australian young people are obvious. Lukianoff and Haidt challenge three key ideas that while generally unspoken, underpin the zeitgeist of this age: Firstly, that we are fragile and that what doesn’t kill us makes us weaker; Secondly, that we should reason emotionally and that we should always trust our feelings; and Thirdly, that life is a battle between goodies and baddies (the key being to note that we are always the goodies, while those who disagree with us are the baddies!).

It is the role of parents and schools to partner in combatting these beliefs in our children and young people. Indeed, I believe that if we are to raise robust and resilient young people we must be deeply and intentionally countercultural. If we cannot challenge the belief of young people in their own fragility… they will have no resilience. If we cannot teach young people to question their own emotions, they will be enthralled by them. And, if we cannot teach people to empathise with others and see the world through their eyes, they will be forever locked in conflict with those with whom they disagree.

An intentional and counter-cultural narrative that grows robust and resilient young people will not happen by accident. I make a point of telling new Year 7 parents each year that while their children will always be safe and loved in our care, their teachers will make it their mission to make them uncomfortable. Children and young people must be stretched, as real learning and personal growth takes place only when they are outside their comfort zones. Children and young people must be taught not to fear the feelings this generates, but rather to tolerate and ultimately to revel in them and to enjoy their time in what we call the learning pit. In doing so, we teach them that they are not fragile, and that what doesn’t kill them makes them stronger.

In both our academic classes and in our Wellbeing Program we teach young people both to understand and respect their own feelings as well as those of others, and also to question them rigorously. Many years ago as a Law student, one of my particularly fearsome lecturers often used to reprimand us with the words, “No one cares what you think, feel or believe… Only what you can prove!” While this may be a little strong, he drilled into us the importance of supporting our statements with evidence. Our children and young people’s feelings matter, and it is important as adults that they know we are here for them and care for them. At the same time, however, as adults we need to grow our own skills in helping our children reflect on and master their emotional responses. In this way, they will learn to understand their own emotions without being enthralled by them.

Finally, one of the key dispositions in our Building Purposeful Lives Framework is that of Empathising. We define empathising not only as understanding how others feel, but also how others think. We intentionally choose teaching and learning activities that encourage children and young people to grow their ability to see the world from the perspectives of others. One of the unfortunate aspects of the growth of social media is the degree of faceless hostility we find there. My own local community page can be a truly awful place, in which people who would ordinarily be kind and decent are likely to erupt with rage and aggression in the face of the slightest disagreement. We need to be intentional in helping our children and young people understand that there are often many ways of understanding the same situation, and that those who disagree with us do so (most often) from a sincere and heartfelt place. In such instances, there are no goodies and baddies… just different understandings.

We often say that it takes a village to raise a child. We want to partner with parents in raising robust and resilient children and young people and invite you to join with us in a counter-cultural revolution!

Owen Laffin
Head of Secondary Years