The endearing summer movie, Inside Out, was more impactful than I expected it to be. As I watched 11-year old RIley navigate adolescence with help from Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust, I was reminded about the importance of discomfort and struggle in achieving growth.
I have read and re-read the research, most prominently by Carol Dweck, showing that when children are praised constantly and often hollowly, they become both immune to the praise and also don’t develop coping mechanisms that build resilience, undermining character development and growth. As a parent and teacher, these findings can be difficult to remember and faithfully follow. The bottom line is that watching and letting someone struggle with something can be unpleasant—even when we know it’s okay and, ultimately, for the best.
It often takes committed intention to keep ourselves in line with what the research tells us. For example, last week at the beach, my 7-year-old daughter barreled into the mudflats and sliced her toe on an oyster shell. Moments earlier, I had warned her that without shoes, she could get hurt, but she wanted to go for it anyway. I wanted to tell her she couldn’t. But instead, I let her.
She played happily for a full six minutes before she came wailing back to me, pointing to her bloody toe. I quickly assessed that it was only a small cut and told her we’d need to clean it up at home.The fifteen-minute walk home was pretty ordinary. I stayed completely calm and largely unhelpful. She talked and talked about the cut, but also pointed out birds and flowers on the route. She walked; I didn’t carry her and she didn’t asked to be carried. At home, we cleaned the wound together, applied antibiotic ointment, and wrapped her toe in an Ariel band-aid.
It was hard, in some ways, to keep myself from swooping her up, sharing her panic, and trying to lessen her discomfort. But in other ways, it was easy. I knew she’d be fine, and after we fixed her toe up, so did she. As Wendy Mogul, author of The Blessings of a Skinned Knee, wrote, “our job is to prepare our children for the road, not prepare the road for our children.”