Shielding kids from life's realities
Don’t shelter your children from every disappointment. Help them manage each example by degrees.
Originally published in the Moultrie News.
Many of my friends who are parents protect their children from every little possible discomfort. I can see their kids becoming fragile and spoiled, and I don’t want mine to end up that way. But I also don’t think it’s good to just throw them in the water every day and let them drown or swim on their own. Kids don’t need to feel stress like that all the time. Help me work this out!
Sounds like you’ve already worked it out. As your question implies, the solution is somewhere between the two extremes.
Pain is something all humans must manage. Not just physical, of course, but mental and emotional. Handling small pains at a young age (i.e. social snubs, losing games, hard teachers, not getting everything we want) can help us manage graver pains later on.
Parents who always shield their kids from small pains risk depriving them of critical coping skills and training them to be entitled snowflakes. But how do parents help kids manage the pains without childhood becoming one long, stress-filled melodrama? The key is gradual, guided exposure.
Life doles out plenty of pain. We can’t protect our kids from all of it, but if we slowly expose them to it with coaching and wisdom, we can help prevent them from being overwhelmed when they become adults.
When I was in 3rd grade, a substitute teacher mistook me for a surly classmate. When the real teacher returned, she assigned me to write 100 sentences. I refused. I would get my father to handle this indignity!
My father, unfortunately, told me to write the sentences. I told him it wasn’t fair — why would he believe the teacher over me? He said he didn’t know who was right, but chances are I had done plenty of rule-breaking that I had gotten away with, and I should consider this justice.
Well, I didn’t. Not then. But later, I saw the wisdom in my father’s answer. He knew I was going to face injustice in life. He knew he couldn’t possibly rectify every instance, and neither could I. Rather than rescue me from the punishment (which would have led me to expect an escape from every unjust inconvenience), and rather than shrugging and saying, “Life ain’t fair” (which can make kids cynical), he made the best decision of all: he empowered me with a way to reframe the injustice. This helped me to cope with it, and it helps me to this day.
I have a friend whose badly-coordinated 4th-grade daughter wanted to try out for the basketball team. She couldn’t dribble, shoot, or pass, and her mom knew the girl was going to be disappointed.
Mom had options. She could call the coach and give her a sob story about the girl’s self-esteem (many would). She could micromanage her daughter into a sport more perfectly suited to her skill set. Some parents would even hire a personal trainer to help her prepare for the tryout.
No, Mom let her try out as is, without interference. The girl predictably bombed, but Mom was there to help soothe the pain. Instead of an escape pod, she gave her daughter a lesson in setbacks, and her daughter is better off for it.
A parent once called me on the second day of school. Her daughter was “devastated” because none of her friends were in her homeroom, and she had no one to talk to at lunch. Would I move her to another homeroom?
Well, no. Instead, I convinced her that this minor setback could be a set-up for a brand-new friendship. Sure enough, a few weeks later, the girl met her new best friend.
None of us want our children to feel pain, but managing discomfort is a crucial part of being a healthy, happy adult. Don’t shield your children from every disappointment. Help them manage each example by degrees.
Matthew Arnold said, “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly.” If we always keep children safely wrapped in their cocoons, how can we ever expect them to fly?
Read the original column here.
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