Ar­mour built piece by piece

Sunday Territorian - - LIFESTYLE -

SHE climbs into my bed early one morn­ing, blue eyes duller than usual.

‘‘I don’t want to go to school today,’’ she says qui­etly.

‘‘ Why dar­ling? You love school.’’

‘‘I don’t want to watch the other kids get awards. I’ve been at school five years now and I’ve never got an award. Five kids get an award ev­ery year. Five times five equals 25 and there’s 28 in our class so I should have got one by now.’’

Blimey, my kid should have a Bledis­loe-sized tro­phy for math­e­mat­i­cal rea­son­ing alone. I smile at her across the pil­low but my heart clenches be­cause, as any par­ent will at­test, their un­hap­pi­ness is also yours.

In­stinc­tively, I want to make it bet­ter. To tell her how fab­u­lous she is and how it’s a bol­locksy sys­tem any­way that favours the high- achiev­ers and the strug­glers, but not the kids in be­tween. I want to tell her that she’s made me laugh harder than any­one on the planet and that her friends adore her and that no kid who can pull off a cock­ney ac­cent and nom­i­nates ‘‘gob­s­macked’’ as her favourite word is go­ing to go through life un­no­ticed.

But it’s not my job to ap­ply Band-Aids to her un­hap­pi­ness; it’s my job just to ac­knowl­edge it.

‘‘You sound re­ally dis­ap­pointed,’’ I tell her. ‘‘Why does it mat­ter so much?’’

‘‘Be­cause I’d like to stand on the stage with a cer­tifi­cate.’’

I could re­mind her of all the tri­umphs in her life. I could also give in to her re­quest to stay home. But on this par­ent­ing path where sign­posts are as thin on the ground as Hansel and Gre­tel’s bread­crumbs, in­stinct has taught me that this is the good bit. These are the mo­ments for quiet fist pumps. Be­cause watch­ing her daw­dle for­lornly into school I know she’ll come home with some­thing far more pre­cious than a cer­tifi­cate: re­silience.

Child psy­chol­o­gist Dan Kind­lon calls it ‘‘psy­cho­log­i­cal im­mu­nity’’. Just as our im­mune sys­tems are strength­ened by in­fec­tion, so our psy­che is em­bold­ened by dis­ap­point­ment, fail­ure and strug­gle. ‘‘ Civil­i­sa­tion is about adapt­ing to less-than- per­fect sit­u­a­tions,’’ he told The At­lantic, ‘‘yet par­ents of­ten have this in­stan­ta­neous re­ac­tion to un­pleas­ant­ness, which is ‘ I can fix this’.’’ We’ve de­vel­oped, he says, a ‘‘dis­com­fort with dis­com­fort’’.

I used to be the CEO of Fix and Res­cue. A for­got­ten lunch­box and I’d drop it to school; fail­ure to make the rep squad and I’d point out the high stan­dard of com­pe­ti­tion; a lost toy and I’d re­place it. But I was do­ing them no favours. So I dropped my hard hat in the bin and learned to leave them with their hunger, dis­ap­point­ment and loss. It’s amaz­ing how a rum­bling stom­ach can im­prove mem­ory and re­source­ful­ness; how miss­ing out can make them try harder.

No one would wish on kids a dif­fi­cult life but suf­fer­ing can breed the emo­tional re­sources they’ll need to cope with in­evitable set­back and fail­ure. Cu­ri­ously, all my best friends have over­come sig­nif­i­cant ob­sta­cles: an al­co­holic fa­ther; a fam­ily lie; the death of a sib­ling; a com­pli­cated adop­tion. It’s made them strong and adapt­able, funny and em­pa­thetic. The most car­ing, I find, have of­ten had an ab­sence of care them­selves.

Look­ing at our award-less daugh­ter in the hours af­ter her birth I knew im­me­di­ately who should be her god­mother. This scrawny, un­der­baked child who spent her first few weeks sleep­ing her way to a health­ier weight needed a sur­vivor on her side.

I asked my clos­est friend from school, the most in­vin­ci­ble and loyal per­son I’ve ever known. When we were 15 her beloved dad com­mit­ted sui­cide. My friend strug­gled, then ral­lied. She fleshed out the car­cass of her fam­ily with friends who are still by her side 30 years later. By mak­ing her god­mother, I hoped her re­silience would wing its way to our se­cond child.

It’s worked. Our daugh­ter is more her god­mother than me. She likes car­toon draw­ings just as my friend liked As­terix. They both have a wry sense of hu­mour: ‘‘Good luck with that,’’ she quips when her dad muses he might take up cycling. And they both bounce back. My girl didn’t freak out when I ac­ci­den­tally deleted her Pow­erPoint pre­sen­ta­tion but sim­ply did it again. This week when there was no ta­ble pro­vided for her drama exam she im­pro­vised with her knees.

Some­times when driv­ing I snatch glances of her in the rear- view mir­ror be­cause she’s been blessed with one of those smiles that makes ev­ery­thing all right.

But it was a con­ver­sa­tion re­cently that proved a bit of hard­ship breeds em­pa­thy. We were dis­cussing abor­tion, as you do when you have a teenager who’s just be­com­ing po­lit­i­cally aware. I tried to post­pone the con­ver­sa­tion un­til her lit­tle sis­ter wasn’t around but her ears were al­ready pricked. As the elder de­bated the is­sues — rape, a woman’s choice, when is a foe­tus a hu­man be­ing — her lit­tle sis­ter took it all in.

When she spoke it was with gen­uine un­der­stand­ing: ‘‘ What­ever the sit­u­a­tion, that’s just re­ally hard isn’t it?’’

And there’s no awards for that.

Not ev­ery kid can get an award, but miss­ing out can breed the emo­tional re­sources they need to cope with set­backs

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