Let your children struggle

Greg Moffatt's picture

I was teaching in India a few years ago and one of my students was commenting on how nice it must be to live in America. She and her husband had a challenging life and made little more than $50 a week at their jobs. “Everything seems so perfect there,” she said.

In some ways she was right. The United States is a wonderful place to live and, more than anywhere else in the world, it is truly a land of great opportunity. But everything is far from perfect.

An interesting metaphor confronted me as the student was talking. She was drinking a glass of water she had poured from the tap. I, on the other hand, was drinking from a water bottle.

“Some of what makes the U.S. great also weakens us,” I said. “For example, our water is very clean, but for generations it has been that way and our bodies have evolved. I can’t drink the water you are drinking without getting sick. In a way, what helps us in one arena also makes us weaker in another. Our lives are very sterile.”

Like many of you, I was born in a time before cars had seat belts. Airbags were futuristic concepts, and nobody had a bicycle helmet. Baseball season was only 10 short weeks with all games played at the same local park and only the championship team got a trophy.

I rode my bicycle to school from the third grade and into my high school years. I also rode it alone to the public swimming pool, park, library, and on my paper route at 4 o’clock in the morning. Like almost all my peers in grade school, I had the measles, chickenpox, and mumps.

Working with young people I see so many examples of well-intentioned parents trying to shield their children from adversity. They cover them from head to toe when they leave the house so they don’t scrape a knee or bump an elbow. They don’t want their children to be embarrassed on the baseball field, soccer field, or recital room, so everyone gets a trophy. “We’re all winners,” we tell them.

In a way, this is true and not necessarily a problem, but put it together with all the other ways our children are shielded, and you have a problem.

Once when I was little, I had made some mistake that upset me greatly. My father, an engineer, pulled two items from his shirt pocket.

“See this?” he said holding up a mechanical pencil. “The lead in this pencil is very small, isn’t it?” Then he held up a tube-shaped eraser that was far larger than the pencil. “See this? This is bigger because I make lots of mistakes. That is how we learn.”

It was an important lesson for me. We learn from the bumps and bruises of life. Some of the best thinkers, artists, musicians, and writers in history developed their most incredible work in the aftermath of adversity.

Many great things have helped us over the years. By late in my childhood, fluoride was in toothpaste and local water. Consequently, my children have no cavities. Neonatal death rates in the U.S. are very low and my children have never had measles, mumps, rubella, or chickenpox. The chances of any of us getting polio or smallpox is zero.

So I certainly am not proposing that you give your children filthy water or send them out into the street to play, but hovering over your children in an attempt to prevent any contact with difficulty or pain is not in their best interests.

There needs to be a balance between hovering and neglecting. When my students struggle over a term paper or a test question, my goal is to find that line where their struggling helps them learn, but I intervene at the point where their struggles are defeating them.

Parenting is much the same. Don’t try to solve all of your children’s problems – school issues, relationship problems, etc. Be a good listener and let them struggle through some of their difficulties while you patiently wait for the right time to intervene – if at all – before they are defeated.

[Dr. Greg Moffatt, a regular columnist for The Citizen, is also a college professor, a licensed counselor and a public speaker. In addition to wearing those hats, he has served as a regular lecturer at the FBI Academy, as a profiler with the Atlanta Cold Case Squad and is also author of “Survivors: What We Can Learn From How They Cope With Horrific Tragedy.” His website is gregmoffatt.com.]

frotzed
frotzed's picture
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Joined: 07/18/2012
I agree, minus the bit on diseases

I definitely agree and your piece is written very well. I would disagree, however, on your parallel between struggling in life (problem-solving, hard work, etc) and contagious diseases.

With the measles for instance, you lay in bed until you're better or you lay in bed until you die. You don't "struggle" through the measles. No one says to little Johnny, "Just try harder to get better, you're not trying hard enough to beat the measles."

But other than that, yeah, I personally let my children struggle the same way you're suggesting. I only intervene when it's obvious they're missing a key piece of the puzzle or when they're on the verge of defeat.