My 3 ½ year old fell head first in the duck pond in Prospect Park this past spring. The incident left him scared and rather traumatized. So much so, that when his friend lays on the ground, and throws leaves into the duck pond in Central Park, he screams, cries, and then pulls her back from the edge by her dress while yelling, “It's not safe!”
My son and I spend a lot of time in the park and around a variety of duck ponds, so we talk a lot about water, being scared, learning to swim, how to stay safe, and how still, he doesn't want to go to the parts of the park where he saw a kid fall face first into a deep puddle, so that his entire head was submerged under water.
Oddly, in reference to the duck pond incident, I have been told randomly, that my son will get over it eventually, because kids are resilient. Not only are kids resilient, but people are, generally speaking.
I know what these people mean: that children go through difficult things and survive, even turn out well, despite an aversion to water.
Yet, it's the English teacher in me that just has to point out that it's not a correct use of the word “resilient.” I find it hard, in these conversations, not to quote Mandy Patinkin in The Princess Bride by saying, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
To be clear, the word resilient means the ability to recoil or spring back into shape after bending, stretching, or being compressed. This definition suggests that kids simply endure whatever trauma or hardship, from falling in the duck pond to being bullied at school or by their parent, and simply spring back into shape, as if that event never occurred.
Granted, the alternate definition of resilient is that someone withstands or recovers quickly from difficult conditions. Still, this definition suggests that the difficult conditions do not leave lasting marks or at the very least, that kids (and people in general) can endure rather a lot, without much harm coming to them in the long run.
I just don't think this is true of kids, or of grownups either.
After my son's fall into the duck pond, he has not just bounced back as if he never fell head first into dark murky water. Even in the alternate definition, he is recovering from the fright of his fall, but quickly? He fell in three months ago. Is that quickly? I have a friend who lost her gorgeous off the grid house in the Colorado fires. She is recovering, but she is grieving, raging, crying, yelling, and grieving some more. Is that all part of withstanding?
The word resilience devalues the experiences that shape us and impact us. It asks that we experience life by acting as if things don't.
I think the better word is adapt. Instead of saying children are resilient, we could say, children adapt. Because they do. They develop coping mechanisms. They make decisions about the world and they make decisions about themselves. Some children who are abused are scared into behaving well, because they adapt with the notion of, “if I just stay quiet and out of the way...” while others adapt by becoming physical fighters. But spring back as if nothing ever happened? I don't know anyone who does that. Humans collect experiences the way a child collects shells at the beach; it doesn't serve anyone to act as if those experiences don't leave some imprint long after their moment has passed.
After my son's fall, he's adapted by staying away from the edge of the duck pond. He only goes in the ocean if he's holding my hand, and he won't let the waves go higher than his knees. This week he begins swimming lessons, an adaptation we're hoping lessens his fear of water. He will recover, and I do believe this whole process will contribute to who he becomes, but I don't expect him to bounce back as if it never happened. To do so would be a disservice to who he is and his experience.