Two days ago I wrote a post about The True Measure of Success, in which I reminded myself to keep my parenting battles in perspective by using my daughter’s happiness as a measure of how well something is working or isn’t working.
That post got me thinking.
What if it isn’t that simple?
I still believe that happiness and joy and love of learning should be the true measure of success. But sometimes it isn’t as simple as happiness in the moment. Without the opportunity to struggle, to learn perseverance, to test their own limits and build their own confidence, children won’t have all the tools they need to pursue true happiness throughout their lives.
If that is the case, me stepping in when I see my daughter struggling isn’t necessarily what’s best for her.
(When I say it out loud like that, I think “DUH”. Of course I can’t step in every time she is struggling with something. She would never learn.)
But even as obvious as that seems, it’s easier said than done, you know? As a parent, we want our kids to be happy. One of the hardest parts of our job is letting our kids struggle and even fail. We have to let them fall down, let them get frustrated, let them make mistakes. It’s how they learn that they can succeed.
What I wasn’t prepared for is the fact that as they grow, so do their struggles. I’m just getting to the point where I can let my toddler take a tumble or struggle to figure out a new toy without stepping in every time. But now the oldest is in first grade. She is learning how to struggle with dynamic friendships. With responsibilities like homework. With reading and math. With rules in class that she doesn’t want to follow.
And she’s doing it on her own. I can’t be there to help or advise or comfort. The best I can do is hold her tight when she gets home, weary from her own battles of figuring out how this big world works and what her place in it all is.
And as she does so, I’m figuring out what my place in supporting her is. How much do I let her struggle and how much do I help?
I’m going back to the homework debate as an example, because it’s something so many of us parents are reading about and wondering about and struggling with right now, due in part to all the hype on social media and the beginning of a new school year. In my previous post I came to the conclusion that perhaps questioning the homework policy for me as a parent wasn’t necessary because my child wasn’t struggling with it (yet).
But what am I teaching my daughter if I support her doing homework until it becomes a struggle for her? I don’t want to teach her that the response to difficult situations is to remove the challenge. If it is something I believe in, shouldn’t I stand up for it no matter what, regardless of how well she is handling it?
Because there will probably come a time when it does become a struggle. Then what?
Really, it all boils down to an impossible question: how do we know when to let them struggle and when do we stand up for them? How much homework-induced discomfort will teach them perseverance and grit and responsibility? How much of it will damage their love of school, their self-esteem, and their love of learning?
How do we know where the line between benefit and harm is when it comes to struggling?
It truly is an impossible question because I think it is different for every child. And not just that, I think it changes at different times in a child’s life.
BUT. WHAT IF….
What if the most important question here isn’t how much struggle is the right amount? Maybe we would be better off asking which struggles are worth the struggle instead.
Because here is the real secret: NOT ALL STRUGGLES ARE CREATED EQUAL.
If children are going to struggle, it should be for a purpose, not simply for the sake of struggling.
Sure, she could struggle with the boredom of another math worksheet. Or instead she could struggle to learn to ride her bike. She could struggle with the discomfort of having to do her chores or clean her room. She could challenge herself to read a book that she chooses. Or challenge herself in a swimming or gymnastics class. Or setting the table.
Or perhaps she is challenged all day at school and she just needs a break.
Which one of these things would be best for her whole-self development?
Honestly, it’s probably different every night.
Which is why, as her parent, I’m hesitant to say that struggling with homework is a good thing. Or an evil thing. Some nights it may be exactly the kind of challenge she needs. But what do I do on the other nights? Because I don’t need to let her struggle at homework just for the sake of struggling, especially if her time could be better spent elsewhere.
Maybe it doesn’t matter whether homework is good or bad. Maybe what matters is that it might not always be the best use of our time in the evenings or the best way to teach responsibility or perseverance.
Surely teaching our children when to stick with the struggle is just as important as teaching them how.
Ironically, it appears I am learning the same thing.