“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” James 1
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16
“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” Matthew 16
“Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you.” 1 Peter 4
The reason for my question last week was that I have been thinking lately about how much I worry and aim to protect my kids. And I’ve been talking to parents, listening to them describe their efforts to help their children avoid pain and struggle. Add to the mix my own annoyances with personal frustrations and difficulties in my individual life – irritations with delays, internal angst when things are more challenging than I hoped, etc. – through all this I’ve been reminded of the irony, how contrary, both my response and my attempt to run ahead to avoid struggle, seems in light of some of my favorite passages noted above.
A pastor shared an image one Sunday morning. One of school yard playground from the 1940’s. As we looked at what we would, by today’s standard, assume to be a barely begun construction site, or perhaps an image of bars and beams only for trained/very well trained, Olympic gymnasts; we were asked to compare that image to what we would envision a school playground to look like today. I’m sure you can picture the difference. Nothing too high, nothing too sharp or too metal-ly, coated many times over to reduce the chance of encountering heat or injury.
So lately, as we get ready to see our soon-to-be-adult sons engage in the world on their own, I keep asking myself 1. What kind of “playground” have we set up for them? and 2. Regardless, what kind of “playground” do they need now, in this season?
I think most people want the same core things for their kids. Most of us want responsible, generative, reliable, healthy and independently functioning adult children. There are about a million variations on the how and why we envision the details of these traits, but I think we are almost all essentially on the same page. What I am recognizing in myself is how I want responsible kids, yet, there are certain responsibilities I shield them from. I want the boys to be reliable, yet I honestly don’t give them that much to be relied upon to do. I aim for them to be independent yet, if I’m honest, I hold them back from independence. If I’m not pushing or pulling into the realities of life, I’m protecting, providing, and buffering.
This really came to a head for me as I was listening to a friend share about her teenage daughter. She was sharing about all the heartache – the mean girl stuff, body image issues, questions and doubts…she was sharing about her daughter’s struggles, but she was sharing in an effort to solve for those things. We were sorting and sifting together through how her daughter might avoid all this. Or how we as parents could shield her. All the while acknowledging that these parts of life we had also gone through, maybe still go through, and were “part of growing up.” Yet here we were, theorizing ways around the pain. I don’t think this is wrong. I actually think this is normal, and hardwired within us. I am more considering the contradiction this presents within our faith as Christians, and how that also parallels with all we know about character development through science.
I teach about navigating struggle a lot. I would say 99.9% of my Spiritual Direction sessions are about gaining clarity and a plan forward, out of struggle. But as I watch myself, as I watch my kids, as I watch us, I just want to bring us back to that basic reality of the value of struggle.
There are several theories as to why there is a sharp increase in diagnosis’ of anxiety or depression among teens and young adults. Some theories try to ascribe blame, others point toward biology or the impact of technology. All of the ones I have read make sense on some level. (Currently I’m diving into Julian B. Rotter’s “locus of control” and how that is playing out through generational cycles. Stay tuned if you are nerdy.) But I just continue to be reminded that stress management is vital to development. But my children have very little stress.
I realize that is not every young person’s story. While none of us experience a stress-free life, there are people that have way too much stress piled onto them, and way too early in life. But, if I’m being honest, for the average parent, most of us are focused more on shielding from stressors than teaching stress management. And when we are not taught, or don’t experience the power and value of our own agency (our ability to choose, persevere, or overcome), it is not a far stretch to envision a generation that struggles to recognize their own ability to navigate, endure, and/or control things.
Stress and struggle are valuable, both for ourselves and allowing space for stress and struggle to do it’s work in the lives of others. I wonder if I have taught, so unintentionally, that life happens around my kids/to my kids rather than allowing consequences and struggle to do it’s work so they see their center of control comes from within. That it’s not as much about protecting from but more, engaging and journeying through. That they do have the ability to write their own story, especially over the sanitized script I try to devise.