Teaching Our Kids to Handle Adversity

One of the defining moments in my youngest son’s life occurred on a Saturday a few years ago.  He had been working hard for over two years to earn his black belt in Taekwondo and was participating in an all-city testing event to determine if he was ready.  He executed his kicks and moves flawlessly during the day and you could feel the tension and excitement growing as the kids approached the final test: breaking a board with a flying kick.  The students had two chances to break the board and his first kick failed.  There was enormous pressure on him at the end of this long day to break the board or he would not earn his black belt and have to wait another four months to be re-tested.  His turn came and with a determined look in his eyes, he began to run towards the instructors who were holding the board in their hands.  He leaped into the air, cocked his leg and lashed out with his foot at the board.  The whole scene seemed to be in slow motion as we watched the board bend slightly, but not break.  He mistimed the kick and his second chance to break the board had failed-he would not be leaving with the coveted black belt that day.  As it turned out, the other six kids in his age group also failed to break the board.  We wondered how our son would react to this disappointment.

We walked over and hugged him, noticing the upset children in his group being consoled by their parents.  To our great surprise,  he was stoic about the whole thing:  “That’s ok, I will just practice harder and take the test again.”  We were blown away by his mature response and thanked him for being so grown up about what had happened.  To bring this story to conclusion, he worked hard over the next four months and broke the board at the next testing and earned his black belt.  It meant a great deal to him, especially since he failed in his first attempt.  That black belt represented in his young mind something he wanted and he worked very hard to earn it.  His failed first attempt was simply an obstacle he had to overcome.  Imagine what would have happened if the officials running that first testing had said, “You all tried really hard and you each deserve to get a black belt today.”  What lessons would our son have learned if he had been given a reward that he did not earn?  Does the real (adult) world give awards for trying hard?

In speaking with parents over the years and observing my own children’s sports and school activities, I have noticed a disturbing trend:  There is a powerful reluctance to let our kids struggle or fail.  Fairness is the new mantra.  We worry more about our children’s self-esteem than preparing them for an independent and successful future.  Everyone gets a nice trophy or certificate for simply showing up.  Competition is often set aside in favor of participation where everybody is a winner.  I bet you have noticed this as well.

Don’t get me wrong.  I like fairness.  I am also strongly in favor of encouraging young people.  But, I also appreciate the pursuit of excellence.  Competition can be a healthy thing that also encourages children to excel and give their best effort on the playing field and in school.  Instead of assuming that our kids might be hurt or negatively impacted by failure or struggle, perhaps we should consider that they will learn valuable lessons from these experiences.  I think we know intuitively as parents and parents-to-be that we are molded by our childhood experiences.  How were you shaped by your childhood?  How does your upbringing manifest itself in how you are raising your family today?  How does it affect your actions at work?  How does it affect your faith?  Can you trace your actions as an adult to the multitude of experiences you had as a child?  Children need to learn from their struggles and failures and experience the accompanying emotions of sadness and frustration.  These struggles will teach them to be persistent in the face of adversity later in life.

If we fix every problem and swoop in at the first sign of struggle, will they be able to deal with challenges as adults?  Statistics indicate kids are living with mom and dad much later than they did 20 years ago and moving back home after they finish college.  Generation Y expert Dr. Tim Elmore, President of Growing Leaders, is fond of saying that “26 is the new 18.”  Young people, often unequipped by their parents, coaches and teachers to deal with the harsh realities of life, are staying home longer under the protective umbrella of their parents.  How do we make the necessary changes to equip our kids to be independent, confident, resilient and successful in life?

Six Best Practices to Consider

Perhaps the first step in solving the problem is to honestly admit that we have one.  We can blame others, but ultimately the responsibility for raising our kids and preparing them for the future belongs to us.  I have come up with six best practices from my family’s experiences (and ongoing struggles) along with observations of other families for your consideration:

  1. Be a Parent, not a Friend. My wife and I want our kids to love and respect us, not think of us as friends.  We can be buddies when they are 30 and have families of their own.  Unlike friends, parents have to give tough love, provide boundaries and equip kids to face the world outside of the home.  There will be lots of laughter and tears on this kind of journey.
  2. Teach the value of money. I remember well three things my parents did for me that had a positive and powerful impact on my life.  1)  They gave me a used lawnmower when I was 10 so I could start a lawn business and make my own money.  2)  My parents told me I would have to save up to buy my own car.  3)  I knew from my early teens that my parents could contribute very little to my college expenses and I would need to save, work during school and take out loans to attend, which I did.  It was a struggle during those years, but I gained an appreciation for hard work and the value of a dollar that I am grateful for today.  What’s the lesson?  Don’t provide everything for your children.  Make them earn it and they will appreciate it more.
  3. Everything our kids do is not amazing! If we praise everything our kids do, even poor or mediocre performance, how will they gain perspective or achieve excellence?  Encourage them to do their best, show them how to get better and encourage practice.  If they make a C on a test, make them correct the items they missed.  If they are struggling on the athletic field, speak to the coach and get in some extra practice.  Show them excellence and how to achieve it.  Don’t sugarcoat mediocre/poor efforts or you might cripple them for life.
  4. Don’t keep our kids in an ivory tower. Use discretion as to the right age for this, but talk to your kids about the real world.  Kids are smarter and wiser than we sometimes give them credit for and they can readily absorb important lessons.  Talk about the realities of living within a family budget.  Discuss how much it costs to attend college these days.  Discuss your job (or your job search), current events, global problems, politics, etc.  Treating kids like responsible members of the family will prepare them to better handle the challenges of being adults in society.
  5. Teach selfless giving at a young age. Want your kids to appreciate what they have in life?  Get them involved in non-profit volunteering and community service as soon as they are able.  Serving at a soup kitchen, building houses, picking up trash or simply spending time with senior citizens at a retirement home will help them gain a better appreciation for the life you have provided them and plant a lesson about the blessings received by giving selflessly to others.
  6. Be a family of faith. I have often written about the necessity of parents being strong role models for children.  We have a responsibility to teach our kids to love Christ, understand and love the Catholic faith and to pray faithfully.  They will be most likely to do these things if mom and dad set the right example.  Equipping our kids with a strong faith will exponentially increase their ability to deal with adversity in the future when they know they are not alone and Christ is always with them.  Looking for a teaching moment?  Share with children the powerful example of God allowing Christ to die on the Cross for us.  He didn’t intervene to spare His only son the Crucifixion so that we might have eternal life.

My oldest son is my role model and inspiration as I watch him navigate through each day with the challenges of high-functioning autism.  I can never complain about anything when I consider what he goes through in his life.  In this last year,  our son wanted to earn what is called Level R at his school. This is recognition that he is demonstrating leadership qualities and the level comes with special privileges including lunch off campus once a week.  The students and teachers meet once a week in a “community meeting” to discuss and vote on who goes up or down in the school’s level system.  Three times he tried to move up, but he was voted down each time regarding some areas he needed to improve.  We were getting anxious as we observed this happening, but knew we needed to let it run its course.  On the fourth attempt, he finally made it to Level R.  His beaming face and the excitement he felt about this achievement was very moving.  He worked very hard to stay at that level all year and the hard work spilled over into strong academic performance and a slew of awards he received on Honor’s Day at the end of the year.  What would have happened if the school had felt sorry for him and just let him move up the first time?  What if we had intervened and not allowed him to keep trying for Level R?  The positive impact of this struggle made a huge difference in his success this past year for which my wife and I are very grateful.

Our natural parenting instincts are always going to kick in when our kids face struggles or roadblocks.  For their sake, especially as they get into school and start playing sports, let’s exercise restraint in protecting them from failure.  In our conversations with teachers and coaches, let’s be attuned to their styles and see if there are opportunities to influence them to challenge our kids more…or perhaps we should seek more challenging school and sport alternatives if possible.   If we want them to cope successfully with an often unfriendly and challenging world, they need to learn these lessons from us in the early years.  The world, especially the business world, is a tough place.  It is not going to nurture, coddle or protect our children when they are old enough to have real jobs and there will certainly not be awards handed out for participation.

If we truly love our children, can we love them enough to let them learn valuable lessons from their struggles?  For their sake, I surely hope so.


Randy Hain, Senior Editor for The Integrated Catholic Life™, is the author of The Catholic Briefcase: Tools for Integrating Faith and Work which was recently released by Liguori Publications. ”The Catholic Briefcase” is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble online and your local Catholic bookstore.

The Catholic Briefcase was recently selected as a Finalist in the About.com Catholicism Reader’s Choice Awards for the Book of the Year for 2011.  You can vote for The Catholic Briefcase here: About.com Catholicism Reader’s Choice Awards


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