Today I have a guest post for you that offers a little bit of food for thought. I can relate to the conflict that parents have watching their little ones struggle to learn how to do something. I am still guilty of rarely letting Darah try to feed herself, and this story is a good reminder to me that I need to let her try it and get messy, or else she’ll never learn!
Babies enter into the world utterly dependent on their caregivers. Long days, sleepless nights, and year upon year of loving, worrying, feeding, bathing, changing, soothing, and caring conditions us to help our children meet any need and overcome any challenge. The art of good parenting comes in knowing when to help our children grow strong by letting them struggle on their own.
The story of The Man and the Butterfly demonstrates the importance of helping wisely:
A man found a cocoon of a butterfly. One day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the butterfly for several hours as it struggled to force its body through that little hole. Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and it could go no farther. So the man decided to help the butterfly. He took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon.
The butterfly then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.
The man continued to watch the butterfly because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time. Neither happened! In fact, the butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.
The man is driven by his compassion for the butterfly’s struggle and by his desire to make things easier for the emerging creature. But struggling through its restricting cocoon is the butterfly’s only way of forcing fluid from its body into its wings and it is only after this process is complete that a butterfly’s wings are prepared for flight. In his well-intentioned haste, the man bypassed one of nature’s most efficient and necessary processes, crippling the very life he meant to aid.
How do you feel when you watch your little one face struggles? It is so instinctual for parents to want to rush in and help (and certainly any health and safety-related situations call for immediate intervention) but how do you fight the urge to solve the kinds of challenges that are necessary for your child’s healthy emotional growth?
Sometimes struggles are exactly what our children need in order to grow strong and fly with their own competent wings. A childhood without challenges soothes our parenting minds but stunts our children’s ability to cope, persist, and persevere.
Signe Whitson is a licensed social worker and author of The Angry Smile: The Psychology of Passive Aggressive Behavior in Families, Schools, and Workplaces, 2nd, ed.