Watching Them Struggle


One of the hardest challenges in parenting is allowing your children to struggle as they learn and grow and not stepping in to take the struggle away.

In my early parenting days, I quickly rushed in to rescue my children from anything that might have been hard for them creating for them a life free from pain and challenges in exchange for a life of ease and comfort.

If they struggled to tie their shoes, I’d have them try, and when it was too much, I’d do it for them. When they couldn’t cut their chicken at the dinner table, I’d do it for them. Butter their toast. Buckle their seat belt. Wash their hair. Tie their shoes. Vacuuming the floor. Pouring milk on their cereal. Doing their hair.

The tricky part is that developmentally it is appropriate to help with some of these things. For example, it would not be developmentally appropriate to expect your one year to tie his shoes and say “He can just sit there and scream until he figures it out.” But then you also have to take into consideration the specific development ability of each child. Perhaps your child has some disabilities that make it inappropriate to expect them to tie their shoes at ten years old.

You see, when these kids come to us as newborns we have to do everything for them, and gradually they grow more and more capable of doing things for themselves, and sometimes the parents get in the way of their developmental progress by not allowing them opportunities to struggle.

A young child taking their first steps struggles. But that’s a struggle that parents enjoy and celebrate. They take pictures and smile and say “How cute” when they fall, and then they stand them right back up and encourage them to try again. The parents are calm and in control and that it encourages the child to keep trying. Or maybe the child is so excited that it encourages the parents to keep making room for them to struggle and they try to figure it out.

But not all struggles that we watch our children go through are as easy to tolerate as those first steps that they take. Some struggles will break your heart and have you silently weeping into the night.

As parents, we owe it to our children to develop the ability to be able to tolerate their growing process which is going to include struggles and difficulties. But it also requires that we develop the ability to use good judgment to know how much to support they need from us and to be able to recognize when our “support” is being a deterrent to their growth.

The Cay, by Theodor Tayloe, is a great parenting book, though I highly doubt that author wrote it as one. It beautifully illustrates the value of allowing your kids to struggle as they grow and develop.

When their ship was torpedoed, Phillip received a terrible blow to his head which eventually causes him to become blind. He is separated from his mom and stranded on an island with Timothy, an older man in his late 60s seasoned with years of experience of sailing which has given him valuable knowledge and skills for survival. Phillip has no such knowledge or skills, and he sees no point in developing them since he is blind and Timothy can take care of both of them until help arrives.

The first task that Timothy gives to young Phillip is to make mats for them to sleep on. He takes his hands in his and shows him how to weave. Phillip is so mad and feels justified in not having to work because he is blind. But Timothy won’t back down and insist that he can indeed weave the plants to make the mats. Phillip gets so mad and feels betrayed and picked on that he screams at the Timothy and calls him an “ugly black man.” But Timothy does not give in to the tantrum. Eventually, Phillip makes the mats. With each day comes to a new sense of independence for Phillip as Timothy pushes him to develop a new skill. Over time he becomes less dependent upon Timothy for things he used to be completely dependent for.

With parenting, it is our responsibility to lead our children into independence. It can be so tempting to keep them dependent on us. Maybe we do this to them because it feels good to be needed so we tell ourselves that they can’t do it without us. Perhaps we do this because it is too hard to watch them struggle. Maybe our fear of failure and our inability to tolerate our own setbacks are what drives us to get in the way of allowing them an opportunity to grow from their failures.

It would have been easier for Timothy to take pity on Phillip because he was blind and do everything for him, rather than the hard work of teaching Phillip how to do them. It would have been easier to do it for him and not have to listen to his complaining and insults. Timothy could have simply taken care of him from day to day. It would have been easy to keep Phillip dependent on him. It would have been easy to fold under Phillip’s fits and tantrums. But Timothy saw beyond that.

As parents, to help our children reach their full potential, we have to develop the ability to tolerate watching the healthy struggles our kids must pass through to grow.


photo: my daughter, making a snack for herself