Walking Through This Together

There are two things parents should give their children:  roots and wings.  Roots to give them bearing and a sense of belonging, but also wings to help free them from constraints and prejudices and give them other ways to travel, or rather, to fly.

Johann Wofgang von Goethe

“Lellers in mee puuuh!! Lellers in mee puuh!!”  Our 13 year old has been passionate about appearance and expressed a penchant for fashion-forward thinking since her toddler years.  She was always accessorized by a purple purse emblazoned with a iridescently pedaled flower, loaded with colored magnet letters.  “Letters in my purse!!” was a siren song to our hearts as she gained more and more confidence, ability, and mobility as she grew from a baby into a toddler.

There’s not a well-meaning parent or teacher who likes to see kids hurt. Easy enough—but, we also get to make lots of choices about the role of struggle in our interactions with kids. Important caveat: it is never my job to add struggle; it may be a REALLY important part of my job to allow kids to struggle with lots of tasks and situations. My question and challenge as a dad and teacher has become, “Do we allow our kids gifts of struggle in small ways now or unwittingly multiply their struggle in big ways later in life?” More on that on the practical level in a bit…

As we peeled her hair out of her adorable and ever-snotty nostrils and “re-spouted” her hairstyle atop her precious noggin for the 100th time as we did every day of toddlerhood, my wife and I came to the same realization that I assume all parents have at some point:  it’s vastly easier to pick up the “lellers” and other toys for our child in the short-term.  In other words, I can pick up a lot quicker and more efficiently than any 16 month old! (my wife fairly disputes my comparative value in cleaning…) Often less clear in the moment is that we pay a price when we stand between our kids and the realities of life in doing things for them rather than walking with them, helping to grow the roots they need.  Those roots don’t grow if we don’t train them as they grow.  There is also a real risk of crippling children’s wings they need so much later in life when adults aren’t around.  Put simply, just because something “works” in the short-term, it isn’t necessarily best in the long-term…for kids OR adults! We love them so and don’t want them to struggle, but struggle they must if they are to thrive in the long-term.

Help her do it herself…that’s what a two-year old wants and needs!! (Erikson hits this nail on the head:  autonomy vs. shame & doubt really is the name of the game.) With great enthusiasm and excitement, we can help kids attach positive emotions with task completion.  As a pair, pick those blocks up with fun and positive silliness.  After putting a block on her adorable head…”That’s silly!!!  Those goofy blocks don’t go there, they go here on the shelf!”   Repeat a few hundred times and we get kids who can complete tasks with less and less direction from me, in other words:  the root of autonomy.  They’re always left with that deep sub-conscious goofiness and fun associated with getting the job done! 

In her 2015 book, How to Raise an Adult, former first-year student dean Julie Lythcott-Haims cautions of three pitfalls parents and adults face when we have opportunities to allow kids the struggle they need to graft their roots to ours and start to grow wings.  Trouble lurks when we do things for kids that 1)they can already do for themselves, 2)they can almost do for themselves, and 3)are fueled by adult ego and attachment to appearance and outcome.  Choosing struggle requires courage and patience that don’t come easily to be sure.  With little kids, I just need the d*#n blocks AWAY!  With older kids, I’ve fought to get the kid’s room clean…and to my specifications…ENOUGH, I’ll just do it!

These early lessons are important to lay a foundation based in doing and contributing.  A famous 20 year Harvard study of the importance of chores bears out what we intuitively know:  kids need to do things for themselves and others if they are to grow into competent young people and adults.  Helping and pitching in around the house isn’t just about getting the trash taken out…it’s a foundation for inner strength needed to face a world of choices and consequences.  This includes choices about how to engage and contribute to a world that needs them.

“Research by Marty Rossmann, emeritus associate professor of family education, shows that involving children in household tasks at an early age can have a positive impact later in life. By involving children in tasks, parents teach their children a sense of responsibility, competence, self-reliance, and self-worth that stays with them throughout their lives.” (University of Minnesota)

Raising kids who can walk through the world with the self-reliance and self-worth Rossman calls our attention to is the greatest gift we can give our kids.  Parents know this, but we can easily get sucked in to short-term thinking early in our kids’ lives and parenting journey by taking the easy route.  To do so puts our children at risk which is obviously never our aim.  We know this.  A recent group of parents I worked with identified these possible outcomes for children and adults if we do for them what they need to do for themselves.  Kids and adults who can be:  tired and overwhelmed, unprepared for what comes next in life, less respectful of self and others, less confident, lacking a sense of accomplishment, and resentful and insecure. Not the rosiest picture!

Ours is a long-game that requires what I heard recently described as an heroic consistency in the everyday acts and practices that are the short-game.  This may require that I let go of what they can already or almost do at the price of my attachment to appearances or outcomes.  Again, the wisdom from those parents I got to work with says it best.  Kids and adults who can be: challenged through struggles, capable, coping, resilient, and blessed by proper and healthy perspective of the struggles that life always delivers in life.  What a terrifying, exhilarating thought when I think of the loves that still grow roots and wings in my home today! I love them so and don’t want them to struggle, but struggle they must if they are to thrive. This looks like a picture of realistic hope!