The other day, I shared a video with my ninth graders made by a Michigan high school teacher and author, Chase Mielke. Chase had sent the video to me a week or so before, and I thought it connected well with a pair of burning questions my students and I had been pursuing of late: What skills matter most in life? How do we make sure to build those skills in high school?
After watching the video, I asked my students to summarize 2-3 of Chase’s points and then explain whether or not they agreed with what he was saying.
Arguably, the point of Chase’s message is that the main event of high school isn’t academics — rather, it’s learning how to deal with adversity well; it’s developing resilience. (A year ago I wrote a series on resilience — part 1, 2, 3, and 4.)
My students’ engagement with this idea of resilience reminded me of a lesson I had learned with my children several months before.
A lesson in the Stuart van
This past summer, I was beyond frustrated with a habit my children had developed: when something would happen that they didn’t like, they’d respond negatively. Shocking behavior, right? But, normal as it is, it was starting to put a drain on the collective joy of the Stuart household.
Things came to a head when we were visiting with one of the children’s aunts, and I announced to the kids that our time was up and we had to go. One of my daughters had just been in an argument with her siblings, and she was upset and embarrassed. She didn’t want to leave her aunt’s on such a note, and so she ran and hid beneath a stairwell in her aunt’s apartment complex. Upon getting her into the car (through much exasperated cajoling) she then spent five minutes refusing to buckle her seatbelt. When finally this buckling had been achieved — after no shortage of foolish threats of later consequences from me — we headed off on the drive home, all of us exhausted from the strain of leaving.
I knew I needed to speak with my children about this pattern of responding negatively (and counter-productively) to circumstances we don’t like. Not knowing exactly what to say, I started talking. Through conversation, the kids and I arrived at the two skills that I told the children they (and I!) needed to work on.
With my ninth graders, I call these the two rules of resilience.
Skill (or Rule) 1: Accept what’s happening.
When we find ourselves in negative circumstances, our instincts say, “Fight this! Resist! Dig in!” But this instant reaction leads to all kinds of foolish actions — like hiding beneath the stairs in the apartment complex, or refusing to buckle our seatbelts, or arguing unkindly with our spouse, or cursing someone out in our minds during a difficult meeting, or rationalizing our actions when someone tells us that we’ve hurt them.
The first skill of resilience is to not auto-respond like this. It’s to accept what’s happening.
Right now, we have to leave our aunt’s. This is what’s happening.
Right now, my wife and I are having an argument. This is what’s happening.
Right now, I’m in a meeting that I don’t like. This is what’s happening.
Right now, someone is telling me that I’ve hurt them. This is what’s happening.
Now let’s see if we can do something about it.
Skill (or Rule) 2: Make the best of it.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl argues that there is a fundamental freedom that all people possess but too few exercise: the freedom of internal positioning. Frankl writes, “Everything can be taken away from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” It is a beautiful insight developed in the midst of one of history’s greatest hells.
So, kids, I said in the van, when I tell you it’s time to do your chores, or that it’s time to leave your aunt’s, or that bedtime has arrived, how in the world could you make the best of those things? Those are things that you’ve all told me you don’t like. So is it even possible to make the best of those? How?
Well, Dad, the bright young ladies responded, we could do our chores quickly so that we can get back to what we were doing quickly. We could think about what we’re excited to do when we get home, or we could run and tell our aunt thank you for a great time. We could ask our parents if we can leave what we were playing with out so we can play with it tomorrow, or we can ask if it’s okay if we read in bed for ten minutes as long as we get ready for bed quickly.
All true and all good, I said.
[And then the upbeat show theme music faded in, and our van drove into the sunset with all of us singing along…or it was like the dialogue above except super messy and pockmarked with off-topic questions from the girls and periodic yells from my two-year-old son of, “Dad, I see a motorcycle!”]
Like always, the learning took time. In the hours and days that followed, I quizzed my daughters on the two rules quite a bit. I quizzed them until they could easily tell me what the two rules were. I quizzed them until their eyes started to flinch into a rolling motion as they said, “Accept what’s happening, Dad. Make the best of it.”
And when I would see them responding differently to unwanted circumstances, I’d pull them aside and call it out.
“Laura, I just saw you do that! You accepted what was happening. Nice.”
“Marlena, wow! You made the best of that! Did you see how happy Dean was with your response? You did that, little beauty.”
The connection to you, me, and our students
The beautiful thing about these two rules of resilience is that they are as relevant to me (and to you!) as they are to my kids. When my kids are disobedient, or my wife and I are starting to argue, or work is a bummer, I'll be best off if I 1) accept what’s happening and then 2) make the best of it.
I can view the disobedience as a chance to love and teach and learn about my children. Am I asking too much of them? Is there something they don’t understand or haven’t learned how to do?
I can view the argument as a chance to see if anything is hurting my wife’s heart. Is she under a lot of pressure right now? Is she tired? Am I exasperating her with repeated behaviors? Does she want to know that I see her — that I value, know, and respect her?
I can view the hard thing at work as a chance to find solutions to hard problems. This parent is upset — hmm, I wonder why? How would I feel in their shoes? These students are not ready for ninth grade — hmm, what’s going on here? What research could I do? (And what else might I satisfice in order to even do that research?)
Frankl would say, “Yes, Dave — these internal shifts are always yours to make. No parental or marital or professional problems take that agency away from you.” And when I hear Frankl saying these kinds of things to me, I respect them because here is a man who didn’t just theorize about things like this from the comfort of a coffee shop, pecking away at a laptop — he put this freedom into practice, deciding to let his sufferings in the camps make him a better person. Frankl didn’t do this because he was forced to — he did this because it did the impossible miracle of making meaningless suffering meaningful.
So, you and I are experiencing nothing as harsh as Frankl’s suffering. And yet, the moves he made — accepting what’s happening and making the best of it — can powerfully predict the course of our lives.
And if you’re wondering how my ninth grade students responded to the two rules when I shared them, all I remember is that one girl said, “You sound just like my mom.”
For more of Dave's writing on teacher resilience: