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Kindling A Fire: Resilience Not Resignation


It’s not unusual to hear one generation offer laments about the next. “Kids today!” can be a common refrain. I confess it’s tempting, when you consider the prosperity they enjoy or the technology at their disposal, to conclude that students of recent vintage have considerable advantages. 

But as I said to our students, ignore that talk. Completely. Having passed the pandemic’s two-year mark, today’s students can claim—unfortunately—to have endured challenges as trying as any young person has dealt with in previous generations. 

Think of what they’ve gone through: loved ones facing serious illness, even death; remote schooling; games, performances, proms, parties, playdates all canceled; a world closed up and locked down; and even when school re-opened, it was a far cry from “normal,” which strained the mental health of even the most well-adjusted. 

That’s to say nothing of the social and political division affecting our country, or the achievement culture that sometimes pressures kids to succeed. Let us never lose sight of what they’ve been through. 

But as we approach Mental Health Awareness Month in May, I have encouraged our students not to wallow in self-pity, even if it’s deserved. This ordeal and its inherent challenges have fortified this generation with indisputable advantages. Most importantly, they have developed a resilience that is durable and battle tested. They have faced up to a historic challenge with courage and dignity. 

No one wants to grow up during a pandemic, but resilience cannot exist in the absence of adversity. Students cannot learn how to bounce back until they have been knocked down. Resilience is a muscle that’s developed through training. 

Over the past two years, the pandemic has presented our students with an opportunity to build their resilience muscles intensely.  It is now incumbent on them (and the rest of us, as parents and community members) to use those muscles in the years to come – to strengthen their resilience and not allow it to atrophy. 

To do so, an open dialogue about mental health, a focus on student self-efficacy, and a sense of balance is essential. Normalizing discussions about mental health and providing tools to work through challenges will break down barriers that impede treatment. And in de-stigmatizing mental illness, we must avoid pathologizing normal struggles or catastrophizing setbacks that are an inevitable part of growing up and provide needed opportunities to manage adversity. 

And more than anything, we must resist the urge to plow a path for our children. If they are to succeed, it should be through their own personal leadership and resilience, not the work of the adults in their lives. 

At Country Day, we have invested more resources in mental wellness, character education, and life skills instruction to meet the needs of our pandemic generation. We have added a full-time therapist from Children's Hospital, through our partnership with MindPeace, to supplement our existing school psychologists, and we have bolstered our administrative staff to advance an expanded social-emotional learning curriculum. More than ever before, we must know, nurture, and inspire our students while arming them with strategies to develop their own resilience.  Because as much as our support helps, success is in their hands. When students take ownership of their growth, they are destined to thrive.   

As one psychologist wrote, “Human beings are not passive victims of change but active stewards of their own well-being.” At Country Day, we reject any suggestion that today’s students are victims of change or part of an entitled generation. Instead, we believe they are resilient “stewards of their own well-being.” And we must give them a chance to prove it. 

"Kindling A Fire" is a column submitted regularly to Indian Hill Living by Head of School Rob Zimmerman '98.