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Struggling to Grow

From birth, our children must work to accomplish a variety of tasks. From the frustrating first moments when they must root for the breast or bottle, or get their fists into their mouths to relieve teething pain, they struggle to succeed. They progress eventually to more complex abilities, rewarding but no less frustrating. They stand, only to fall again and again. They get on a bicycle, only to tip over and skin a knee. As they mature, the physical struggles are replaced with emotional ones. Do they include Rob in their group, even though Sam doesn’t like him? Should they give part of their candy to a playmate who doesn’t have any, even though they want it all for themselves? Should they take a peek at a neighbor’s test paper, even though they know it’s wrong? These decisions with which our children struggle are ones that will continue throughout their lives. The content may change, but the conflict is part of life itself. Our children’s efforts will promote their growth, and ultimately play into the formation of their adult character, morals and values.

As parents, it is our job to allow our children to struggle sometimes, in spite of how distressed they may appear and how disturbing it may be for us.

The other day my eight year old daughter proclaimed to her little brother that she was going to buy him (as well as herself) something at the zoo gift shop. I knew that she had eight dollars which she had saved from accumulating her allowance. I also knew that in the gift shop it would be difficult to stretch that little money that far. Once in the shop the emotional struggle began. Immediately the stuffed animals caught her eye, the least expensive of the truly desirable ones being six dollars. “Oh!” she proclaimed, “I really love these.” There was a pause. “But they’re six dollars. If I get one of these, I won’t have enough money to get something for Daniel.” I watched as she put it back, only to pick it up once more and stroke it. She put it back again. She walked through the shop, a grown-up frown on her little face. Pick up, put down, pick up, put down. One by one items were looked at, rejected. She drifted back to the stuffed animals. I could see her becoming discouraged. Still I held back. At one point she proclaimed that she would just buy her brother something, and get nothing for herself. I could see the despair in her face. It was painfully hard to watch her struggle. Especially hard because I wanted so badly for her to succeed in her generosity. Yet I knew that the final decision had to be hers. Fifteen minutes passed, twenty. “How’s it going?” I asked. She shook her head dismally. Finally she asked “What do you think Daniel is going to want?” “I’m not sure,” I responded. “But you’ll be better off if you choose two things that you know you can afford, and give him a choice. More than that will overwhelm him because he’s only two years old.” She went through the store one last time. Finally she gave Daniel a choice between two items that she’d seen him looking at, then went back to the stuffed animals. She picked up one that was five dollars. I knew it wasn”t her first choice, but then her first choice was more expensive. She had compromised, and she had been generous. She had struggled, and she had grown.

In staying out of her struggle, I gave her the opportunity for growth. Yet many times I, like most other parents, step in unnecessarily when I see my child faced with a difficult decision. I think there are many reasons why we step in, none of them particularly good enough to warrant our intervention.

It’s hard to keep your mouth shut.

This is often the most difficult thing that we are called upon to do as parents. Our instinctual response upon seeing our children in pain, even if it’s psychological pain, is to jump in and fix it for them. And sometimes our children really do need our assistance. (For example if they are being physically or emotionally hurt by someone, or if they’ve specifically asked for our help.) Other times, however, our children need to work it out themselves. This holds true whether your child is valiantly struggling to crawl and vociferously expressing her frustration, or whether your children are arguing loudly with one another (but not drawing blood) or whether your child is engaged in a moral dilemma about responsibility or generosity, as my daughter was. When we open our mouths and give advice, we ruin our child’s chance to come to a conclusion which is all his own, one that he can take responsibility for and which will stay with him for the rest of his life.

It’s hard to be patient.

Non-intervention takes time. Let’s face it, time is a commodity of which we could all use more! But feeding our children the answers to their conflicts in the interest of saving time usually costs us more time later on. Because a child won’t internalize a solution that is fed to her as permanently as she will one which she comes up with herself, we often end up having to step in more, and feed her the same solutions over and over. By taking the time now, and allowing your child to struggle and come up with her own solution, you’ll most likely reduce her dependence on you later.

We want our children to make the “right” decisions.

Every parent wants their child to grow up to be responsible, honest, brave, generous, kind. Sometimes, therefore, we step in to ensure that he chooses the “right” thing. The problem is that in doing so, we relieve him of the responsibility of making good choices. Human beings learn best by making their own choices, and experiencing the consequences of those choices. If someone else makes your difficult choices for you, and you don’t like the consequences, you can always blame them for the way things turned out. Struggling with and making your own decisions allows you to know which choices to repeat in the future, and which ones to avoid.

The next time you’re thinking about jumping in and rescuing your child who’s struggling with a decision, remember the story about the Zen Master and his student: The Master sent his student to observe a butterfly emerging from it’s cocoon. The student waited and watched for a long time, as the butterfly struggled to escape. Finally, the student couldn’t stand the struggling any longer, and he reached in and gently helped the butterfly out. The butterfly fluttered vainly, then fell to the earth and died. When the heartbroken student returned to his Master, he told what had happened. The Master explained, “When you reached in and helped the butterfly out, you deprived it of the opportunity to strengthen it’s wings in the struggle.

Remember that sometimes you must allow your children to struggle in order to strengthen their wings. For it is only with strong wings that they will succeed in life.