Today, I wanted to talk to parents on the idea of letting your kids struggle purposefully. I am a father and love my daughter to a depth that I did not know was possible. My family naturally wants to provide the best childhood as we possibly can with the resources we are blessed with. One day listening to a podcast, I heard the host discuss how he struggled hard to get to the current point of success he has achieved. The host continued to discuss how all that hard work helped define him and grow him into the successful person he is today. The host said, as a parent, he struggles with the idea of his success limiting his children's exposure to struggles and their ability to overcome adversity. By offering the best opportunities he could for his children, he felt in some ways that he was robbing his children from the experience of struggle by providing an easy life for them. The host acknowledged that his success could limit his children from personal growth.
The thought made me question myself as a parent and help me contemplate my desire to see my child not struggle. We live in a time were letting a child struggle at times almost seems abusive. Why would you not comfort the child or fix the problem for them? As a parent, I probably dislike seeing my daughter struggle more so than she does. I know through personal experience and research that letting someone struggle with adversity can provide exponential returns compared to saving them from every challenge that comes their way.
Often parents don't see the damage they do to their children by saving them from their struggle. Initially, the child will grow and tend to do well until they hit an obstacle. Often first adversities start in school or extra-curricular activities. Parents all to often displace responsibility on external factors like teachers/coaches, bullies, or other hurdles the child faces. The sad reality is the parent that continues to save their children, often robs the child to develop their ability to overcome the obstacles. Often, this kind of behavior can create a further co-dependence on others and lower their tolerance to adverse situations.
As many know, it is important to show children love and nurturing to help them develop into healthy individuals as well. So the question is, when is it ok to let children struggle? There are a lot of varying opinions on the topic. In this post, I'm going to suggest some of the more helpful ways to allow your children to struggle.
As parents, we need to start by providing supportive care to allow the child to safely resolve problems on their own. Making sure that your child is safe from damaging physical or emotional harm while they face adversity is also important. This allows them to explore and feel enabled to attempt to overcome the challenge they face. With a supportive care paramotor established, I like to start with the question: "will my child grow from overcoming this challenge?" I find almost all challenges provide some type of growth except on occasion. There is value in the ability of a parent to recognize the purpose of letting the child achieve and overcome adversity. This often gives the parents the ability to endure watching their child struggle and see the satisfaction that child gains when they can achieve the desired result.
Here is a simple example. My child was wanting to shut the recliner's leg rest. The leg rest requires a decent amount of force to close and lock. My child tried and failed once and immediately asked daddy can you help me. I said, "With effort, you can shut the leg rest on your own." She looked at me frustrated and continued to try. Through trial and error, she discovered by putting her back to the leg rest and pushing with her feet on the ground that was enough force to shut it. My daughter looked up at me with satisfaction that she was able to do it on her own and stomped off. In her mind, she had achieved something which she will carry with her into the next challenge that she faces.
When praising your child for overcoming the challenging feat, praise their effort. Example: "Wow! that was tough for you, but with your effort, you were able to do it." Here is another example, my daughter said she wanted to do a puzzle a few days ago. I helped her put it together initially, but she then requested to do the puzzle herself. As she began putting the puzzle together, she started to struggle and asked me to help again. Instead of taking the puzzle pieces and placing them in the spots for her, I encouraged her to keep trying, and eventually, she was able to do the puzzle independently. I stayed with her and provided supportive care but did not fix it for her. My daughter was able to do the task even though she got frustrated, she threw a few pieces, and even started to whimper with frustration. The lesson my daughter will learn from this experience is that she is capable of overcoming hard things, even if the hardest thing in her life at this moment is a puzzle.
I recently have been re-reading a book called "Grit the power of passion and perseverance" by Angela Duckworth. In the later chapters of the book, the author discusses how to parent children and cultivate a grit. I have talked about grit in a previous post and its benefits on developing successful behaviors in life. In the book, she makes a suggestion that I think is a great way to create a meaningful struggle within your household. Her idea is to allow each family member to pick one difficult activity that they have to do daily. She explained that everyone in her family has to do one activity a day to help develop grit. The author described how she does clinical psychology, her husband runs, and her daughter practices violin. Doing this as a family also shows children that struggling is a part of life and helps them mimic the same behavior in the activity they choose.
Some research that supports the above ideas of doing something difficult daily is the theory of "learned industriousness." The Theory of Industriousness is a well-researched topic initiated by Dr. Eisenberger. He suggests that the more effort put into overcoming a challenge will create greater satisfaction when the challenge is complete. He also suggests that once a reward is obtained, like getting a degree, a paycheck, or praise that the positive behavior is further reinforced. If a child is robbed of the reward of overcoming adversity than they will not have the reinforcement they need to face another similar task. There becomes a learned behavior of giving up when they are faced with a task that is perceived as being too difficult. Here is a personal example. The first sport I played was soccer. I struggled so naturally, I wanted to quit after the first practice. I fought and pleaded with my mother to let me quit. After throwing a few epic tantrums my mother gave in. Immediately, from that day forward I developed the idea "I'm not athletic sports are too hard." Instead of identifying that I was able to overcome, I took that generalization to most organized sports, and even today when facing physical challenges by working out or running, I go to that mental space. This story happens all too often with all kinds of things that children face and will carry on into adulthood. Such as, if they struggle with math, then they think "I am not smart" or "I am not good at school." So, in essence, letting a child struggle might be the best way for you to help your child develop self-confidence in their ability to approach and overcome adversity.
I have to emphasize the absolute importance of love throughout the process of helping a child overcoming their obstacles. Just as much as saving your child from issues is damaging, so can being emotionally cold and dismissive towards your child as they struggle. In my last post called "What is hope," I discuss learned helplessness. Learned helplessness is not something as a parent you want to have your child develop by being emotionally dismissive towards them. Sticking to a balance with your parenting is important for a child's development. When I worked in the juvenile justice department, most of the juveniles I worked with had no supportive care and never learned that they can overcome adversity. Their path of least resistance, unfortunately, lead them to criminal acts. On the other end of the spectrum, being a loving parent does not mean making life easy for your children.
Becoming a parent with these skills takes a lot of personal control and self-awareness. Dr. Duckworth calls this being a wise parent in her "Grit" book. Wisdom takes practice, patience, and determination to develop. No parent is perfect, including me, but developing the skill of letting your child struggle out of love takes wisdom. Wisdom can seem pervasive, but as I often tell parents: you are the expert on your child. Even though I have degrees and expertise in human development, you know your child better than me. So use that experience to your advantage as you practice wisdom in your parenting.
Helping your child associate effort to achievement is as powerful as providing a loving home for your child. In summary, as a parent, you can purposefully help your child develop their ability to face adversity. Some ways you can develop those skills within your child is by providing supportive care, praising and recognizing effort, and having one challenging activity daily. These steps can develop a child's ability to overcome adversity well into their adulthood. As a parent, this takes effort, diligence, and patience. It is hard to put into practice when you're time-pressed to get out of the door your child is struggling to tie their shoes or get ready but, in those moments lies some golden opportunities for your children to grow. I hope this post has helped clarify the idea of: "is it ok to let your child struggle."
Until next week, Live your best life today.
Aaron Martinez M.Ed. LPC