How To Raise A Strong Kid (But Not A Selfish Bully)

No one wants to raise a pushover. Most people don't want to raise bullies, either. This is how you strike the balance.

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A child in a cape flexing their biceps and smiling while standing on a couch at home.
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Parents, understandably, don’t want to raise pushovers or kids who avoid confrontation. Kids who don’t know how to stand up for themselves grow up into kids who constantly apologize or don’t know who they are. So how can a parent help their kid be self-assured, strong physically and mentally, and have a strong sense of self? It’s not as easy as teaching the ABC’s, but it can and must be done, says child psychologist Gene Beresin, M.D., who runs the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital.

“Kids need to tolerate emotional swings. From bad grades to successes, strength requires emotional control and balance of emotion,” Bersein says.

But parents can’t go too hard on the strength lesson. It’s important to teach kids strength without letting them err into problematic forms of aggression and selfishness. It’s good to raise a kid that’s slow to back down. It’s bad to raise a kid who feels compelled to square off with peers or constantly compete. In a profoundly competitive culture, teaching a kid to weather confrontation but not seek it out is a difficult task. Here are five things parents who raise strong, self-assured kids do.

They Talk To Their Kids About Death

For the most part, the first brush kids have with mortality will likely be when their family pet dies. Although young kids might not understand the permanence of death or what it means to die, the experience of talking through it with them is a fundamental part of teaching their kids inner strength and resiliency.

Beresin says that parents who want to raise strong kids can and should be visibly sad over the situation, but not be debilitated by their grief. This is a teaching moment, in which parents should go through the grieving process with their kids, mourn their pet, and model emotional strength without withdrawing completely or being cold about it.

They Endure Physical Tasks Without Complaint

Being an adult often means doing a lot of shit that sucks. Shoveling snow, raking leaves, deep cleaning the fridge — these are all things that come with adulthood and being a parent. Parents who teach their kids strength tend to do these tasks both without constant complaint and without breaking their backs over it, says Beresin. That means that when they do the work, they take breaks, they vocally prepare for the tasks, and, when they’re done, they say they are proud of themselves.

They Take Work Problems in Stride

Parents who want to raise strong kids who know that what happens to them is often out of their control, and therefore have a strong sense of self, try to keep their cool in the face of seriously rocky work situations.

Work stress gets to us all, eventually, and it’s important that parents feel they can complain to their spouse about their job at home. But what parents need to remember is that their kids are often listening. So stay level-headed, talk through what’s bothering you, and come up with a meaningful plan of action while also talking about your strengths as an employee and a person. Through modeling this behavior, teaching kids to be honest and thoughtful about their situations in work and life will help them be self-reflective and know who they are. Parents who do this raise strong kids.

They Promote Exercise

Strong kids are strong kids mentally and physically, and parents that raise strong kids promote their physical health and engage in activities that promote physical health themselves. Even after a long day, parents should make sure they still hit that 5-mile-run they talked about or go to the gym early, and they should talk to their kids about it. While 8-year-olds don’t need to lift weights, getting out on the baseball diamond with them, playing catch, or racing them is a great way to spend time with kids in a way that prioritizes their physical health.

They Play Superhero, With Full Plot, Bells, and Whistles

When playing superheroes, parents who want to model strength to their kids can help them craft an origin story, and, as every hero’s origin story involves overcoming hardship through emotional honesty and kicking butt, that can help kids understand that emotional vulnerability, as well as physical strength, make a good person.

Parents should know that a game of superheroes also provides a lot of opportunities for real physical play, whether it be sprinting down a soccer field while pretending you’re in a mid-flight superhero fight or wrestling on the living room floor. They should also get creative with the plot: Maybe the superhero made a mistake and has to apologize. Maybe they have an emotional moment with their sidekick. But make sure they win and kick some bad guy butt.

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