We had a wonderful guest speaker at our mom's group yesterday, and she talked about how we don't allow our kids to be frustrated in our society, and frustration is how they learn problem-solving skills. Such a simple statement, and yet it struck me as life changing in its simplicity and truth. She said, "We hate to see our kids cry, and so we do anything possible to help them so they don't feel upset, and then they don't know how to fix problems on their own."
She told this story, which illustrated her point beautifully: Your child wants to go to a movie on opening night. You know that it will be busy and you foresee how disappointed your child will be when it's sold out and he can't see the film, so you promise him an ice cream if he isn't able to see the movie. You get to the theatre five minutes before the movie is to begin, join the huge line, and get to the counter to discover that there are no more tickets. Your child is not frustrated because he has the ice cream as a consolation prize.
If the same story holds true but you don't promise an ice cream, when you get to the front of the line, your child will cry and stamp his feet in frustration that he cannot see the movie. When you get home and the storm has passed, you have the opportunity to talk about it with him, and encourage him to strategize how he could avoid this disappointment in the future (i.e. leave earlier for the cinema, don't go on opening night, buy tickets ahead of time).
This story was so simple, and yet it illustrated a powerful truth. We learn through frustration. When we don't get what we want, we are forced to find a way around the problem to locate a workable solution so we avoid the frustration in the future. We must allow our children to experience this process for themselves, with cause and effect for their own choices, so they have the life skills they need to solve problems and not be defeated by setbacks.
There is no doubt that it hurts us as parents to see our children suffer, in small ways or big ones. But life is about suffering, and surviving, and eventually thriving. If we block their suffering and take it on ourselves, they are missing out on valuable opportunities to grow and develop a resiliency which will last them a lifetime. I don't want to cheat my kids out of that, so I will be looking for new ways to put this concept of frustration into practice.
We can support them through difficulties, and help them with their problem solving skills, but we shouldn't be taking the problems away from them. It's important to provide love and support, and a shoulder for them to cry on, but in the end, they must feel the frustration in order to creatively find ways around it.
I'm grateful to our speaker for providing this flash of parenting insight to me, but it works in all relationships. We can support and love our friends and family members through difficult situations, but in the end each person is responsible to solve the problems on their own, and those solutions provide life skills which will sustain them over the long haul.