Why I am Not Toughening Up My Child
A common theme I've noticed in the parenting community in my 5 years of running a popular Facebook parenting page and blog is that many parents are very concerned about “preparing children for the real world.” I get that.
We are living in a harsh and often time cruel world that does not revolve around my child or yours. So, it seems to some that the best way to prepare them for the harsh realities of the world is to let them face harshness in childhood. This will toughen them up and make them ready.
It sounds like a reasonable plan, but don't count me in.
The truth is, I don't have a one-size-fits-all plan.
can't make blanket statements like, “I will never bring my child his forgotten lunch” or “I won't save him from disappointments in life.” My children are unique individuals at developmentally different stages, and I think that's the missing equation in most parenting “formulas” or “methods.”
All of our children are unique individuals, and we have to treat them according to their needs, personality, and stage of development, not by hasty generalizations about what makes children prepared for adulthood.
Let's look at how development and personality come into play:
Because I understand that executive functions are not fully developed in a young child, I would certainly take a forgotten lunch to school for my 8 year old, if I was able to do so, and not fear that he would need me to bring him lunches forever. My frontal lobe is fully developed, and yet I forget things sometimes. I hope that my family is courteous enough to be there for me when I need them, and so I will be there for them.
Allowing him to go hungry or be forced to eat food he dislikes might make him remember his lunch, but he's going to also remember the lack of courtesy and kindness shown to him. If it's the fourth time this week my 8 year old forgot his lunch, then we need to assess what the problem is and find a solution.
I don't allow problems to go unsolved, but the solution doesn't have to leave anyone feeling helpless, alone, unheard, or unloved. Because I understand that one of my sons is a highly sensitive child, I will not let rude words said to him go unchecked, and I will not let him go undefended. Words hurt him more than they hurt the average child. He soaks them in, deep down into his being, and sitting idly by while another child on the playground says hurtful words isn't going to teach him to “deal with it.”
I will practice with him over and over again how to deal with playground bullies and even rude adults who show no respect to children, and if a situation arises where I see he is having trouble, he can count on me to come to his aid. I would hope someone would come to mine.
Will I always come to the rescue?
Not always. I have to be discerning with each situation and allow my child to handle what he is developmentally, mentally, emotionally, and physically capable of handling. I will not save my children from all disappointments or from failure. I also will not create unnecessary hardships for them to endure in the name of toughening up. I will allow them space to learn and grow without hovering, but I will be close enough for them to run to. I will teach them how to deal with things as they come, but I will not leave them alone to deal with things on their own.
I will not unnecessarily enable dependence (do for them what they are able to do for themselves) or push them to independence (make them do things they aren't ready for). Each situation is as unique as the individual, and I must always seek the wisdom to do what is best for each situation. Sometimes I will fix it. Sometimes I will stand back and watch them fix it on their own. Sometimes I will hold them through the tears as they realize it's not fixable. The point is that there is no single right answer, and it isn't helpful to lead parents to believe that there is.
How does this prepare them for the world?
I'm not sure I'm yet prepared for each day in this sometimes hateful world. I don't know that there is truly a preparation for pain or loss, rejection or isolation, depression or betrayal, or any of the harsh realities that life throws at us. I do know that having close and connected relationships – people we can depend on - is what helps us to survive these realities, and so I will be that person for my children.
Connectedness lowers anxiety and depression, fosters higher self-esteem and empathy, and improves mental, emotional, and physical health. Therefore, I will prepare my children for this world not by toughening them up, but by being someone they are close to. I will prepare them for adulthood by giving them a childhood of goodness. I will send them out into the world not tough, but strong and gentle.
I'm making it my goal to preserve their gentle spirits. Tough children may grow into tough adults who don't feel as much pain in the face of the world's cruelty because they've been desensitized along the way. I wish I could lessen the pain my children will feel from this world, too. But the truth is that, while the world may hurt us gentle spirits more, that hurt spurs us to bring forth change and healing. The gentle spirits make the world a softer and better place for us all.