As a child, my grandparents and I would take my younger cousin, then a toddler to the park. My cousin, who was still unsteady on his feet, didn’t feel the need to master walking before he began to run. His little feet propelled him faster and faster, his face was equal amounts concentration and pure joy, arms wide open as if he was embracing the world. My grandpa ran behind him, arms outstretched to catch him if he fell, yelling, “Don’t run! Don’t run! Don’t run!” I remember thinking, how the heck is he supposed to learn to run if he can’t run? How is he supposed to get back up if he doesn’t fall down? How does he enjoy the sure thrill of flying through the air if he doesn’t take off? Yes, he will fall. He might even fall hard, there may be tears, he might be frightened. But childhood is when we are supposed to fall. We fall again and again while there are loving people there to catch us. But we can never learn how to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and keep going unless we are allowed to fall. Falling is what teaches us that we can do hard things. We can and we will do hard things over and over. Sometimes we will fail. Many times, we fail. And then we keep moving forward.
My grandpa wasn’t wrong for wanting to keep my cousin safe. As parents, teachers, caregivers, and families, it hurts us when we see our little ones suffer. We want to keep them safe, prevent their tears, and pave the way ahead to ease their journey. But our ultimate goal is to nurture our children so that they are resilient enough to face life’s challenges and keep on going on their own. The goal of parenting is not to make our child’s life perfect or easy. The goal of parenting is to ensure our children are strong enough and courageous enough to fly from the nest on their own.
Life can be frustrating for a young child. They are wobbly, uncoordinated, unable to communicate their thoughts and feelings, and lack the experience we need to achieve wisdom. Everything is hard: tying your shoe, having an argument with a friend, trying something new and failing, getting hurt by people you love. Life will have many joys. You will win, you will feel pride, you will master new challenges, you will be amazed and surprised, and you will fall in love. Every living being will experience ups and downs, the point is learning how to deal with the rough patches. Teach your child that they can do hard things. They can face challenges. They will fall and they will rise again.
How do we do this? How do we allow children the freedom for risk taking while ensuring their safety and protecting their ego?
First, ask why? Is your child moving furniture? Climbing on the table? Taking apart your entertainment center? Children are born with an agenda. They need to move their bodies, reconstruct their environment, find out how things work. Is your child balancing, formulating ideas, testing a hypothesis? If so, this is something they need to do. You can pull them off the table, but the second you turn your back, they will return to climbing. If the activity is unsafe, try to figure out a way to make it safe. Climbing on the table might be out of bounds but turning up the music and having a dance party while you cook dinner will work. The furniture might be immovable, but a sheet will allow your child to build a fort under the table. A child who wants to know how things work might need a challenge, “Can you figure out a way to use the soft blocks to build a tower taller than you?” Sometimes your child is saying, “I am longing for your attention. I know you are busy but my favorite thing to do is spend time with you.” Remember that your child won’t always be this little and try to cherish these moments when he is saying, “I need you.” The world is big and scary and frustrating and filled with the word, ‘no,’ children need to connect with us to feel safe. Fill their bank every chance you get, take five minutes in the morning to sit and cuddle, put a special note in their lunch box, play games, read the same book over and over. If you can’t offer them all of your attention, what can you offer them? Maybe your child has a set of pots and pans to play with in the kitchen while you make dinner. Maybe they have their own notebook and pens so they can do “homework” while you sit and study for class. Maybe they just need a hug and some reassuring words from you. The more you connect with your child, the more resilient they will feel in the face of life’s challenges.
Manage Your Emotions Children look to us for examples of how to act in the face of frustration or defeat. Do you flip off the driver who cuts you off? Do you raise your voice when you are frustrated? Are your words unkind? Your child will mimic all of the things they see you doing. Teach them positive ways of dealing with emotions. Say, “I’m feeling really frustrated, I’m going to take a few deep breaths, do you want to try it with me?” Ask them what made them feel sad and then share tips on how to deal with big emotions. Tell them, “I remember when learning to read was hard. I learned the more I practiced the better I got and now I love reading!” Keep what you share age appropriate. Children should not feel like they need to help you feel better or take care of you, but you can give them some age-appropriate strategies you have used.
Our children know exactly how to push our buttons, especially on rough days. Try to keep their behaviors in perspective. Many of the behaviors that bother us, such as yelling and crying, are age-appropriate ways for our little ones to deal with difficult feelings. Take a deep breath, find a sense of calm, and help your child learn to deal with stress, frustration, and failure. Teach them that things are difficult when we are learning something new, but we can always try again.
Cultivate a Growth-Mindset When you were growing up did a “D” on your assignment make you feel like you were bad at math? Did you give up on sports when you didn’t get a position on the team? Did you skip out on a party because you thought you were shy? Teach your child that doing an activity isn’t about getting it right the first time, it’s having a mindset that tells us we can always learn and grow. We do this by teaching our child the skills to succeed. Say, “Maybe it’s hard to concentrate on your assignment at the busy kitchen table, what might be a better place to work?” Encourage them, “How about if we sign you up for basketball camp next summer and you can try out for the team again next year?” Tell them you practiced asking people questions about themselves to learn to make friends. Brainstorm and come up with ideas together. When you child falls, fails, or flounders, first empathize. “How did it make you feel when your friend said that?” Don’t try to skip over the bad parts. Listen and acknowledge that you hear what your child is going through and that you are there to support them. Empathize but hold your child accountable and ask them how they might handle the problem, don’t fix it for them. “You can ask your teacher how you can improve your grade.” Let them experience real world consequences, “I’m sorry, I’m at work and cannot bring your uniform, what do you think you should do?” Remember, it’s not your job to rescue your child but to teach your child to solve problems and deal with setbacks on their own.
Our instinct is to protect our young and it’s our duty to keep children safe. However, staying safe isn’t about protecting our child from every challenge, it’s about helping children develop the skills and resilience to face life on their own. We won’t always be with our child, so they need to know how to stay safe both physically and emotionally and how to keep going when things are rough. We can do hard things, let’s teach our children that. (The inspiration for the title We Can Do Hard Things is from the podcast of the same name with Glennon Doyle as well as her book, Untamed.)