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.

No one wants to raise a pushover. A child who avoids confrontation, doesn’t know how to stand firm, or constantly apologizes is going to have a hard go of it in life. That’s why kids need to develop strength. Physical strength, yes. But also strength of conviction and strength of character. “Everyone has to tolerate setbacks,” says child psychologist Gene Beresin, who heads up 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.”

The question for parents isn’t just how to teach this sort of toughness, but how to teach this sort of toughness without encouraging unacceptable or 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.

Why Raising Strong Kids Matters
Life is full of challenges — mental, physical, and emotional. Without strength, Beresin says, the challenges of life that kids are guaranteed to experience could feel insurmountable. “Physical strength is the easy part,” Bersin says. “But it’s one thing to build up your muscular strength and your endurance by working out. It’s another thing to actually learn the skills that it takes to really do something you want to do.”

Interestingly, physical strength and mental strength are tied together according to Beresin. The discipline of practicing and/or engaging in teamwork seems to help children function in group environments. The key is that these children understand their roles in a social situation and the specific skills they’ve worked on that they can bring to bear.

When to Teach Strength And When Kids Get It
As is the case with most traits, parents should begin modeling strength as soon as they can. Toddlers are constantly watching and taking cues from their parents. While it might seem like going on that quick run or productively handling a career setback might seem out of a kid’s reach, responding to the struggles in a healthy way from the start helps kids understand how to exhibit personal strength.

However, per Beresin, kids don’t really get these qualities until they are school-aged. “You can’t put a real number on it, but 10 to 12-year-old kids are able to see how important these are,” he says. “As they get older, it becomes even more sophisticated and nuanced. A kid who is ten is not going to know the difference between one choice or another.”

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Adolescence, of course, is different. That’s when kids can engage in really high order reasoning and make compromises with themselves and meaningfully plan ahead. Without a proper foundation, however, this wouldn’t be possible.

How to Model Strength
Modeling strength requires, well, strength. Moreover, it’s about acting honestly when hardships arrive and working through difficult situations and tragedies in the correct manner. Here, Beresin offers some adult situations that require strength and how to properly model behavior for kids.

  • When a Pet Dies
    For many children, their first pet passing away — whether it be a goldfish or the family dog — is their first experience understanding death. Now while they may not understand the permanence of it, or what it really means, the experience is fundamental. Parents can — and, per Beresin, should — be visibly sad over such a situation, but not to the extent that it debilitates them. They should tell kids they’re sad. They can go through the grieving process. They should mourn the animal and talk about how much it meant to them. Modeling emotional strength in the face of tragedy without being cold or emotionless goes a long way.
  • During Physical Tasks
    Whether it’s raking leaves, shoveling snow, or clearing the gutters, parents should make a point to have their kids see them engage in tough, physical work without complaints or a puritanical need to push through. They should see them satisfied with a job well done and completing a task to its fullest. This also means, per Beresin, preparing for the day ahead by getting to bed early and vocalizing that to your kid will teach them that strength is about preparation, balance, and commitment.
  • After a Layoff Or Work Problem
    Work stresses get to us all eventually. At some point, parents will complain to their spouse about their work and their kids will hear it. This is a good thing, as long as parents stay level-headed, talk through what’s bothering them, and come up with a meaningful plan of action to improve things. The same is true of larger speed bumps, such as a firing or round of layoffs. Parents, per Beresin, need to work through their problems like adults, and, for the sake of their kids, stand strong, announce their strengths as an employee and person, and talk positively about themselves.
  • During Regular Exercise
    Kids should see their parents go to the gym even though they’ve already had a full day of activities or getting up extra early to go on that five-mile run, says Beresin. By prioritizing physical activity even if there’s a full day of activities, and discussing that priority to their kid, parents are modeling the importance of taking care of themselves and their well-being, no matter the circumstances.

What Modeling Strength Looks Like
Engaging in play is also a surefire way to act out situations that require strength. When playing superheroes, parents can help kids craft a meaningful origin story — one that includes real hardship and overcoming that hardship through emotional honesty and, of course, kicking butt. Parents can even pretend to be the sidekick that helps their righteous superhero kid win. 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. Make the plot creative: 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.

When Strength Becomes A Problem
The potential hazard of raising kids with a strong sense of self and a strong command of their bodies is that these kids can become bullies. Beresin says this is why parents need to be reasonable and to moderate lessons about strength. It’s fine to teach a kid to stare down bullies, but it’s not productive to teach a kid to stare down everyone. It’s gonna make that kid’s teacher’s job impossible. This is why parents can’t just talk about strength. Strength is powerful when coupled with empathy.

So, if a parent is trying to model strength while doing a chore, they should also take breaks to have snacks and drink water. If a parent is trying to model their ability to stand up for themselves in the wake of an unfortunate work event, they should also say what they think they did wrong and what they think they can improve upon. If a parent and kid are watching a superhero movie together, they should point out the mistakes a superhero makes. In other words, modeling strength is a constant conversation, and it’s one where even the strongest are allowed to have made mistakes or overstepped — as long as they apologize.