In the face of uncertainty — which is one word that certainly describes life today — resilience is what we need.
Fortunately, Jewish tradition has emphasized resilience for thousands of years. Noah and his family had it — could you have survived living on a boat with all those animals and their mess? Moses had it — so much of the Torah is a story of 40 years of challenges that Moses had to surmount. Ruth had it — she had to deal with devastating losses and life as an undocumented immigrant, and yet she always was positive.
In fact, the Jewish perspective on resilience — born of centuries of facing all manner of crises, trauma, persecution, and enslavement — is best captured in this proverb: “I ask not for a lighter burden, but for broader shoulders.”
Though none of us has a crystal ball, one thing we know for sure is that our children are going to face a number of difficulties in their lives — in fact, they are facing them already with Covid-19, and many of them are also suffering from the scourges of racism. We cannot shield them from these difficulties, but we can help equip them with the tools to bounce back in the face of challenges.
Here are some Jewish ways to foster resilience in your family.
Understand the issues
Resilience requires persistence, and it also requires deep understanding. In these particular and unsettling times, make sure that your children understand the biology of Covid-19 to whatever extent they can, developmentally. Wearing masks, washing hands, keeping socially distant, wiping surfaces, and so on, become habits when the reasons for them are understood and the impact of not doing these things — on themselves and their loved ones, especially grandparents! — is clear. Also, with regards to the ongoing protests to support Black Lives Matter, make sure your children understand, in developmentally appropriate ways, how African Americans have been poorly treated from colonial times to the present.
Understanding is key here — impulsiveness and impatience are big enemies to resilience. So, take the time to explain things in detail. Explain why you have curfews, why you want your kids to do certain things before other things, like homework before video games, and healthy food before junk food.
Model and encourage plans to overcome obstacles
When Wendy Mogel wrote The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, she knew that letting kids encounter difficulties and potential failures when they are younger — and therefore the stakes are lower — would strengthen them for the more significant challenges of teen and adult life. As the proverb suggests, if we protect our kids from burdens, their shoulders will never widen. So, we help our kids develop resilience by responding to setbacks or challenges in their lives with encouragement and realistic action plans.
Teach children to set goals for what they want to get done on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis; this reinforces that you believe they can accomplish things. You can support them in the process by creating “to do” lists, talking through how best to accomplish what is on the list, and making necessary changes to keep the list realistic. Modeling your own realistic use of “to do” lists is a powerful parenting tool. And think aloud as you encounter unanticipated problems or setbacks. Seeing and hearing you struggle a bit is liberating for kids, who otherwise might shrink from challenges because they worry they won’t be perfect.
Be optimistically future-minded
Throughout Jewish history, crises were (somewhat) mollified by keeping one eye on the future. Jacob, at some level, kept living in the hope of seeing Joseph again; Moses pointed to “the Promised Land” that the Jewish people would eventually reach; time and again, Jewish emigrants left their homes to find a better life in a new land.
In these times, we don’t have to be so distant and philosophical. Establishing routines creates a cycle of optimistic moments to look forward to. As unlikely as it seems, giving your kids responsibilities in the house — especially during Covid restrictions — builds their resilience. Set expectations about keeping their rooms clean and participating in household activities on a schedule, to promote a sense of calmness and control amidst uncertainty.
Of course, Shabbat is the ultimate expression of an oasis in time. Even if you have not been in the habit of doing so, make Friday night dinner into something special. How? Be sure everyone in your household has a role in preparation. Include a discussion of what everyone is grateful for from the past week and what one is looking forward to next week. Set aside screens and phones for a specified period of time — for everyone. Soon, Friday night will be something that your kids look forward to and will sustain their spirit. (Don’t expect them to admit this, by the way — especially if they are teenagers!)
When things are repeated in Jewish texts, we know they are important. In Pirkei Avot, a few pages after the verse “Receive each person with a cheerful face,” we are told, “Receive every person with happiness” (Pirkei Avot 3:16). The science of laughter proves that it’s an incredible bonding agent, a remedy for family stress, and a spark to keep moving forward.
Use aidsto help increase your daily total of laughs. Have comedy CDs or podcasts in the car, or store some funny tracks on your smartphones and tablets; create a silly family video or watch a humorous video or TV show each week together. Ask family members to share what makes them happy, then watch this video based on Pharell Williams’ song “Happy,”; doing this is a wonderful bonding experience — I dare you to not smile while you watch! Identify fun books and read them regularly: Dr. Seuss and Mo Willems books for younger kids, stories about Chelm for older kids, knock-knock jokes for everyone.
Be resilient about being resilient
There is no single or guaranteed pathway toward helping our kids be more resilient, but Jewish tradition gives us good guidance to keep them on track. The truth is, we never know when difficulties will strike — though we can be certain that they will. The book of Proverbs teaches us: “A righteous man falls down seven times — and gets up” (Proverbs 24:16). Let’s teach our kids to persist in getting up whenever they fall down, so they will believe that when they do fall — because who doesn’t? — they will rise again.
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