Fostering Growth Through Childhood’s Stumbles
by Molly Martin, LISW
My youngest daughter cannot wait to walk. She’s constantly trying to escape our attempts to hold her, as she eyes a room full of new things to discover. Upon being set down, she immediately finds something to pull herself up on, and occasionally will dare to let go of our fingers to chance standing independently. Although it only lasts for a second or two before she falls, the look of excitement and pride on her face is priceless. We excitedly laugh, clap, and express our joy alongside her. And then she goes back to try again. And again. And again. It’s hard work for her. It’s repetitive. And her progress is slow. And yet, to paraphrase Janet Lansbury, each time she falls, she chooses to return to the struggle.
Although it’s a struggle, the process in this specific experience is exciting. I could physically carry her around for years to come, but instead, I seek out the struggle with her to support her efforts to stand and walk – I welcome the opportunity to cheer her on. However, through my experiences in parenting her older siblings, I’m keenly aware that it doesn’t always feels so easy and natural to stand by and support our children through challenges.
As they grow and develop, the struggles (for them, as well as for us as parents) can become harder. More distressing. Oftentimes painful to watch. I know too well the heartache that comes with seeing your child stumble…physically, academically, socially. To want nothing more than to run over and scoop them up. To remove the obstacle and make things easier for them…and for me. But oftentimes the reality is that doing so wouldn’t help my child – it would hinder them.
My daughter would not learn how to walk if she was constantly carried or contained. Her muscles develop through repeated movements and practice. Her awareness of how to hold her body develops through experience. Likewise, the way that our children learn and develop in almost any area is through their own experience and repetition. And yes, time and again, that experience may be disheartening.
As much as we want to rescue our children from these hard experiences, it is imperative that we take a step back and choose to instead support them through it. While it can feel helpful in the moment to remove obstacles and challenges, repeatedly being rescued can actually increase feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and depression for our children as they grow. When we save them from challenges, the message they receive from us is that “this is too hard, you can’t handle it, you need me to do it for you”. But when we stand by, offering encouragement and support through the hardship, our kids internalize messages that they are capable, they are strong, and they can be successful. These experiences are the building blocks of our children’s self-esteem, and t he foundation of a growth mindset: a mindset where failure is not only possible, but is welcomed as a part of the learning process.
The discomfort that comes along with trying, and oftentimes failing, at new things is like a muscle that needs to be exercises and developed through practice. The emotional capacity to tolerate the hardship of this process, while maintaining confidence in oneself to continue persevering through adversity, starts in infancy. Our children need to master the developmentally appropriate challenges that occur in infancy and toddlerhood to be prepared for the challenges they will inevitably face through their elementary years. The challenges they overcome in those elementary years prepare them for adolescence. And so on, and so on.
When you decide to step into the role of supporter instead of rescuer, it can be difficult to know what to say. Here are some suggestions when your child is struggling:
- “I know this feels hard. I’m right here with you.”
- “Look how far you’ve come!”
- “Wow, you worked so hard on that!”
- “Let’s try one more time and then we’ll take a break.”
- “What do you need from me?”
- “What ideas do you have for how we can figure this out?”
- Offer a hug
- Say nothing and simply sit with them through the discomfort
- Praise the action/effort, rather than the outcome
As a parent, tolerating my own discomfort so that I can observe and support my children through theirs is one of the greatest gifts I can give them. Every time my child chooses to return to the struggle, I was to choose to do so alongside her. While she is finding her strength in standing and walking, I am finding my own strength to simply watch and cheer loudly.
I cannot wait to take this journey with her, over and over again.