From the time a child is born, there is the struggle: to know, to do, to become. As a parent, we spend a baby’s earliest days answering to their cry, becoming trained ourselves in an extraordinary responsiveness.
As infants become toddlers and then, far too quickly, young children, we watch, amazed, as they master new skills, as they alternate between the drive to autonomy that makes them insist on doing something themselves, and their quick collapse into tears and frustration when the button won’t slip through the tiny hole. A certain amount of retraining has to occur for parents, to still our impulse to help them through each small challenge, to step back and wait to see if they call us to act.
I’ve been reflecting recently on several articles, including one which detailed a self-confessed helicopter mom’s struggle to let her child take risks, and another which clarified a crucial question about happiness. In the first, with laudable honesty and self-reflection, the mom works with the author of Free Range Kids, a book about over-parenting in modern life, to recalibrate her family’s boundaries for her two kids.
She makes a list of risks she has disallowed, like using a hammer or playing in their front yard with access to the street, and works with the coach to address her own anxiety. She mentions the exhilaration in her son’s eyes as he tackles each new possibility, and how he perseveres with the hammer even after whacking his thumb.
Her candor provides a ready guide for parents who have gone overboard, as a means to re-introduce reasonable risks to children’s lives. As the research shows (for example, here), there is a widespread concern that some kids — read: children with an attentive family — are being coddled in ways that threaten their development, and even, over the longer term, diminish their feelings of self-worth. Perhaps it’s because we have fewer children per family, or because the 24-hour internet is always tripping our alarms, or perhaps even because so many of us work (indoors, in antiseptic environments) that we both view childhood as more precious and can judge risks with less accuracy.
But it was the second article, on the common confusion between the search for meaning and our quest for happiness, that really clarified my thoughts. The article recalls an important, ancient distinction: between “hedonic” happiness (i.e., satisfaction from acquiring status or stuff) and the more challenging terrain of doing work that is meaningful to you and the larger society. The medical research shows, amazingly, that people pursuing happiness without meaning are creating the same kinds of stressors in their bodies’ immune systems as people experiencing chronic adversity.
This is both an astonishing result and blindingly obvious. Who hasn’t looked at a paunchy investment banker and thought their pallid complexion belied their public success? This is physiological evidence of what creates resilience in our lives.
We know that people who serve others seem more vital and grounded — we admire them for their drive and their service, both. In movies and books, we celebrate them as heroes — as long-toiling, unheralded, creating meaning out of darkness. If so many people did not choose this path of simple respect for hard work and quiet dedication, nothing would work: our mail would never get delivered, scientific discoveries would not be made, and dinner would never get cooked.
This is necessary work, and life is work. Of course, the work of children is play, and exploration. And while they grow, we would like to protect them from harm. Some days, though, we would even like to shield them from fear or disappointment. Balancing our need to protect them with an understanding that resilience is a learned response, and trusting that they are active agents in the co-creation of their lives, both capable and aware, is the challenge.
Complicating the task, as yet a third prescient article pointed out, is the rarely acknowledged fact that living is inherently traumatic. Even now, at two, Maya will worry about Swiper, the most innocent of villains in her (idiotic) Dora books, or bring home concerns about whether the lions in the zoo can come to our house. I reassure her as best I can, but I know that one day relatively soon she will see through the facile surface of my soothing tones, and come to doubt my word if I over-promise. I can tell her today that the lions aren’t coming, but I can’t promise her much else.
Fear of loss is written into our lives, and figuring out what information is appropriate for which child at which age is a constant act of careful judgment and re-balancing. Of course, grief and loss interfere more often than we care to admit with the lives of children, most commonly when they must dealt with the death of a loved one or a beloved pet.
In these difficult conversations, our own apprehension can mean we just talk too much: interpreting their questions, which can turn out to be quite simple, as a need to understand the whole picture from an adult perspective. Slowing down to really hear what they are asking and assess what they need to know in response turns out to be essential, so that we don’t overshare inadvertently. Often what is required is the simple facts.
We also have to acknowledge that many children live in daily peril of experiencing more tragic events like abuse and violence. Leaving aside awful, sudden tragedies like Newtown, there are entire neighborhoods today that deal with constant trauma from gun violence, as This American Life showed in its stunning two-part investigation into a Chicago high school facing a local epidemic of violence. These kinds of events are, of course, unacceptable, and should be prevented with far more foresight and care than we bring to them currently. Among other needs, what happened with the failure to enact better gun control is shameful.
But if we can set these types of unbearable circumstances to one side, it seems important to allow far more ordinary risks and failures. Imbuing our children with a sense that hard work is essential to success, that some frustration is an inevitable part of pushing through, that even real disappointment is part of the package, strikes me as a key task for parents. To the extent that some philosophies of parenting are interpreted as requiring parents to prevent children from struggling in a healthy, natural way with things that require sustained effort to accomplish, they do a disservice to both parents and kids.
The teachers I have remembered most (Patrice, I mean you) are the ones that invested in me by expecting better of me, all the time. A generous appraisal and belief in one’s capacity is an intensely supportive and empowering form of care, involving as it must such a close assessment of what is enough, and what is too much. And a simple statement of the results following a failure and a discussion of what could change for future attempts is often of more service than cheerleading, brassy dismissiveness, soothing talk or otherwise diminishing the significance of the goals, because any of these provide false comfort and undermine ambition.
Of course, there is a fine line between a show of power and a show of genuine caring. As a guide then, I take a few lessons for my own parenting choices:
1) Fear: Although I will try to keep inappropriately frightening content away from my child, I will also try to address her fears with honesty as appropriate. I will calm myself first, listen carefully to what she is actually asking, and provide a simple, factual response.
2) Disappointment: Although I will never manufacture disappointment (lord knows, children are whimsical enough to do it themselves many times in a day), I will attempt to deal factually and directly with the disappointments that inevitably occur: “No, we don’t have x, you may have y or z.” I will have patience with the melt-down that occurs, and understand it as a lesson in the facts of life: as her new teacher says, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” In this way, I will hope to avoid late-night travels in search of a particular color of strawberry ice cream, as I heard from a friend she once ruefully did…
3) Risk: I will regularly update my assessment of my daughter’s capabilities, allow her real choices, and support my child in doing hard things, because this is where ingenuity can happen and self-confidence can be built. I will make space she needs as she gains independence, and support her ambitions tangibly, without overpraising and without being afraid for her of the always-present possibility of failure.
We should wish for our children that they try and fail at many hard things, to help them discover the things worth working for — and what they are truly good at — from within. As it turns out, sustaining a quest for authentic meaning in our lives, even if doesn’t always lead to happiness, is healthier for both bodies and hearts. If parenting means anything, surely it means this.
Below is an original poem, from an adult perspective, on the trials of this effort, and its many demands. It’s a bit darker than the above, of course, but I was re-reading it the other day and it struck me that it speaks to resilience as well as hardship.
Creatures of Appetite
There are many ways to be brave.
There is the small fortitude of refusing an invitation,
saying, tonight I will stay at home alone and
do something of no consequence.
There is the tiny – almost imperceptible – act of not flinching at a threat to someone you love.
There is the courage of yielding gracefully to a moment of inevitability, when it finally fails.
There is this grieving, too much of the time.
There is the stirring of a small obstinacy in the face of incredible tedium,
the getting up, cleaning, the taking down.
There is the fortitude of trying to stay in love or even just
to be kind when love is the farthest
There is the stubbornness of looking someone in the eye
who is about to hurt you and letting them,
though you will study that hurt like a bone with its secrets.
There is a tacit acknowledgement that what you hoped
is irrelevant, and in the face of such knowledge
there is the strange persistence of how it asks and keeps
asking whatever you have,
how it empties your hands, just to move on.