Lessons in resiliency from Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling

Jan 11 2019

Lessons in resiliency from Harry Potter and J.K. Rowling

“Rock bottom became the solid foundation in which I built my life.”
–J.K. Rowling

By now, the story is well known. While stuck on a delayed train, a medical researcher for Amnesty International hatches the idea for a series of books about a boy and his friends who attend a school for wizards and do battle against evil.  The aspiring author goes through a seven-year period of loss as her mother passes away, divorces her first husband, and battles poverty until her first book is published in 1997.

While this kind of rags to riches story may seem like a fairy tale, J.K. Rowling’s journey from personal hardship to the richest author in the world is in fact true and can serve as an inspiration to all of us.  As a parent and as an educator, I have loved the Harry Potter books for the lessons they can teach us. In particular, I appreciate how Rowling captured the ups and downs that students in school experience and how important it is for children to learn resilience, whether it’s because the fate of the world is in peril or one is arguing with his friends.

I mentioned how well the Harry Potter series portrays this concept during conversations our younger son and I had while hiking in Big Bend National Park over the winter holiday. For a number of reasons and for many years, our college freshman has been interested in the role that struggle plays in one’s personal life and what separates those people who bounce back from hardship versus those who succumb and never achieve their potential.  He wrote his high school senior thesis on this topic, and after much research, he came to the conclusion that one of the most important criteria for success is the way that parents help their children deal with adversity.

A November 26th article in the online magazine Fatherly called “Resilient Kids Come From Parents Who Do These 8 Things” by Lizzy Francis supports the notion that we parents play a large role in helping our children grapple with difficult situations.  In this piece, Francis quotes advice from Amy Morin, LCSW, and author of 13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don’t Do.  Whether it’s not being chosen for a team, receiving a low grade on a test, or opening a rejection letter from a college, our children will experience a number of “failures” over their lives, and as parents we can teach them how to respond so they don’t crumble but in fact come back even stronger than before. This is not to deny that there will be pain-there will be, but we can aid our children in learning that, as a colleague once said, “a failure is an event, not a person.”

Morin gives eight suggestions for bringing up resilient children. (If you’re interested in learning more, there’s a large body of fascinating research on building resilience, including a multi-year study by the US Army.)  She advises parents to allow their children to experience struggle and rejection, but we need to give them the tools to do this successfully and not allow them to fall into the trap of self-victimization. This may sound obvious, but as parents it’s all too easy to adhere to the notion that we’re only as happy as our least happy child, and as a result, we attempt to protect our children from adverse experiences.  According to Morin, we need to do more than just tell our children to “suck it up;” we should help them learn how to identify what they’re feeling, acknowledge their mistakes, practice self-care, and develop a plan for moving forward. In addition, we want our children to understand the connection between their effort and their achieving positive results. As Angela Duckworth explains so well in her book Grit, we should recognize our children’s work ethic and habits, rather than their innate ability, when they do well.

Of course, implementing these suggestions is not easy.  In fact, teaching our children how to be resilient may be one of the most challenging components of parenting. It hurts to see them feel pain, rejection, or loss, and it can surface many of our own personal experiences. (Perhaps, and while not minimizing what they’re feeling currently, we can use our own life events as teaching tools for our children to let them know that others have gone through something similar and have flourished.) If we want our children to be successful in the long term, rather than merely happy in the moment, coaching them on how to rebound from life’s adversities may be one of the most important skills they develop.

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