Our Children, Growth, and Struggle

Ever since God declared His curse upon Adam, our work has been hard (Gen 3:17). There’s no way around it; Whatever we set our hand to do, whether mastering Latin declensions or growing tomatoes, the world seems to be opposed to us and the fruit of our labors. This is true for our children just as it is for us. Their work is difficult for them, just as our work is for us.

One of the greatest battles I’ve had as a parent was watching my children struggle, then striving to find the balance between coming to their rescue and bailing them out, or letting them wrestle through the issue on their own. My oldest daughter Tonia will still remind me of how I would “help” her with her homework. She’d ask what the answer to a particular question was, to which I’d respond with something like, “What do you think?” or I’d ask some other leading question to get her mental juices flowing. (What I would almost never do was to simply answer her question.) After a little while of this verbal repartee, she’d cry, “All my friends’ parents just answer their questions!”

This struggle on my part would become particularly pronounced when the issues rose to a level beyond schoolwork. Our children face real struggles in this world which weigh heavily on their hearts and minds, and many parents wrestle with the question, “When do I protect them from this struggle, and when do I let them work through it?”

It’s a serious question with which every conscientious parent struggles.

The thing parents need to remind themselves of is this: Growth is stimulated by healthy struggle. It’s through healthy struggle that our children learn to become mature adults.

No parent likes to see her children struggle. Of course, our maternal and paternal instincts kick in when we see our children “hurting,” and we want to deliver them from the apparent “pain.” The question at such times is always, “What is ‘healthy’ struggle?”

When our children are wrestling through a challenging novel such as The Count of Monty Cristo, or wading through the intricacies of geometry proofs, or struggling to lift their grade from a C to a B, it’s understandable if they want less struggle in their lives. When I was fourteen, I certainly did all that I could do to avoid that kind of struggle. I stopped taking math and science courses as soon as my high school let me (back in the 1970s, that meant after 9th grade). Even when the struggles they experience rise above the level of academics; What teenager wants to deal with the challenges that come from interpersonal conflicts?

When I speak to groups of students and parents about this topic, I often ask the students this question: How many of you struggle with your schoolwork, or find your work at times to be a considerable challenge? Most of the hands will go up.

Then I turn my attention to the parents and teachers in the room, and I ask them this question: How many of you wish your most challenging work was reading good literature, writing essays about it, and solving trigonometric functions?  All the hands go up.

The Navy SEALS have a phrase that makes the point: The only easy day was yesterday.

As Mortimer Adler said in his great essay, Invitation to the Pain of Learning, “What cannot be accomplished educationally through elaborate schemes devised to make learning an exciting game must, of necessity, be forgone. Heaven forbid that learning should ever take on the character of a serious occupation – just as serious as earning money, and perhaps, much more laborious and painful.”

Because schoolwork involves disciplines of the mind, and because of the fall, our minds don’t like to be disciplined, learning is hard. It’s no wonder children often describe themselves as “struggling” with it.

It’s totally understandable if students at Mars Hill see their neighborhood and church friends who go to other schools where the work is less challenging and think, “I want some of that!”

But are we doing our children any favors by delivering them from that sort of healthy struggle? Frankly, I don’t think so. (I say “healthy” struggle because, let’s face it, reading challenging novels, writing essays, and solving difficult math theorems to God’s glory are going to lead them to healthy maturity in the long run.)

Parents, it would not surprise me if some children, particularly teenagers, decide they want an education that is less challenging, one that affords them an easier time of it, one that does not require them to struggle so. What does surprise me is when parents decide to deliver their children from that sort of “struggle,” since by it, they’re growing into maturity and learning to deal with life’s real struggles that are coming their way.