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Jinnae Anderson: Learning to let go (some) when our kids struggle

Jinnae Anderson:

When they’re small, helping them is practically our lives: We feed them, bathe them, carry them and — sometimes desperately — rock them to sleep. As they grow, we’re assisting them still as they walk, talk, and tie their shoes. Yet at some point we need to go against our parental instincts to come to their aid: We need to step back helplessly and allow them to struggle.

It’s just wrong.

Wrong until we consider how many times we have grappled with obstacles, set-backs and failures, and how we’ve had to dig into our built-up resilience and past know-how to navigate them. It’s important to restrain our instinct to rescue our kids while they gain their own tools for sailing choppy seas and swimming against opposing currents. This way, when they have to meet the tsunamis of life head-on, they will have the skills and know-how to move forward.

To assist us in letting go, I’d like to introduce an important strategic concept utilized in the classroom. It’s called productive struggle.

With productive struggle, a teacher intentionally creates tasks that require students to wrestle with developmentally-appropriate problems and tussle with their solutions. It’s intentionally difficult for them but not overwhelmingly so. The result is that, when a student finally solves a demanding problem or completes a tough project, beautiful things happen: Their neurons start firing and they have this mighty feeling of “I got it! I did that!” They develop resilience and a sense of empowerment, and they feel ready to eventually tackle an even bigger challenge.

Now I’m not saying that we have to intentionally make our children’s lives difficult; life has a way of doing that anyhow. But what happens when we allow the perfection of productive struggle into the way we parent? We stop thinking for our children. We no longer prevent them from making reasonable mistakes that they could learn from. In other words, we support them in a whole different way.

With productive struggle, we support our children to build their resilience and develop tools to navigate challenge — rather than supporting them as (and here I quote the Oxford dictionary) a thing that bears the weight of something or keeps it upright. How would your parenting style change if you saw support as empowering (making your kids stronger and more confident) rather than enabling (protecting them from hardship and consequences)?

Early in 7th grade, my son lost some friends and felt ostracized by his small class in general. It was heartbreaking to see him overwhelmed with confusion, loneliness and grief. As his mama, my first instinct was to march into the classroom and make it all better. I also wanted to call the parents of the kids involved and order them to change their children so it could fix everything for my son. In other words, I desperately wanted to enable the whole situation for him.

Then I remembered that support is empathy. Support acknowledges how hard it is but doesn’t seek to erase the difficulty. In this case, support was about being at my child’s side, to listen and feel with him, and to gently guide him as he developed the ability to overcome social obstacles, manage loneliness, and continue to draw on those skills in the future.

It wasn’t quick and it certainly wasn’t easy, but eventually my son’s suffering became productive struggle. I am so grateful for the resilient, socially-aware young man that he is now. (And for all of you parents whose kids are in — shudder — middle school, I’m feeling for you.)

Here are a few more ways to support your child in struggling productively:

  • Don’t take on their problems. I well remember the day when my young son called to me that he couldn’t find his shoes. For the first time ever, I gave the problem back to him. Instead of running around looking for his shoes, I responded with, “Oh no! What are you going to do?” I could practically feel his brain rewire with this unexpected turnaround. He paused, thought for a moment, verbally traced back his steps to where he’d last left those shoes, and found them right in that spot. It was an empowering experience for both of us. From then on, his developmentally-appropriate problems stayed with him.
  • Make effort more noteworthy than achievement. Notice your kid’s productive struggle and give them lots of juice for it. The achievement, while nice, isn’t as meaningful as what it took to get there. Here are a few lines you might want to utilize:

I bet you’re proud of yourself for taking on that challenge.

I can see you worked really hard on that.

I’m proud of the way you never gave up.

  • As the parent, model the outlook that there is no failure, only feedback. Talk to your kids about how you missed a deadline at work, owned up to it, and got more organized for the future. Admit that you got lost because you were counting on your phone to get you there. Will you carefully look over the route before you go somewhere new next time? Your kids are watching you, so be openly intrigued and eager to learn from your mistakes. Model how to not only accept but even to welcome mistakes as a sign that one is productively struggling, and therefore learning and growing.

It’s difficult for tender-hearted parents to see their kid hurting, so when it happens, take care of yourself. It’s okay to cry in private, or to rant and rave to a friend (or, let’s face it, a therapist). When your child is productively struggling, repeat to yourself that handling difficult situations and making tough decisions is a critical life skill. Support them with your empathy. The short-term pain will morph into the long-term gain of strength and resilience, characteristics that will allow them to navigate life’s challenges with sureness and confidence.

Jinnae Anderson is the Parenting Specialist for the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools. Contact Jinnae at janderson@nevco.org or 530.238.5608.

Know & Go

WHAT: Nurturing Parenting 8-Week Series

TEACHER: Jinnae Anderson, Parenting Specialist for Nevada County Superintendent of Schools

WHEN: Evening session: Tuesdays 9/6-11/1 (no class Oct. 18), 5:30-7:30 p.m., Pizza and childcare are included for evening series.; Morning session: Weds 9/14-11/9 (no class Oct. 19), 10 a.m.-noon

WHERE: Evening session: Grass Valley Charter School 225 S. Auburn St, Grass Valley; Morning session: Nevada County Superintendent’s Office 380 Crown Point Circle, Grass Valley

COST: $35 materials fee (scholarships available)

To register or for more info: janderson@nevco.org or call 530.238.5608

It’s difficult for tender-hearted parents to see their kid hurting, so when it happens, take care of yourself.
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Jinnae Anderson


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