Be Careful About Being Too Care-FULL: let hardship germinate its good work in you and your kids.
As a kid, I might have had separation anxiety. Maybe, maybe not. It’s hard to tell since we didn’t have any “diagnose yourself and your kids”-type websites at the click of a mouse. I wasn’t under constant scrutiny by my parent’s watchful and loving eye. They didn’t get too preoccupied with normal life difficulties. I just had a hard time being away from home. We called it “homesickness.” It didn’t need to be anything to worry too much about. I don’t have camp memories and pillow cases signed by cabin-mates; I don’t have stories to tell about slumber parties or trips with friends’ families. College came along with some panic about leaving home and the likelihood of living with a stranger. But as I look at it now, one year of growing up after another bolstered my stamina and stride. What really surprises me to this day is my decision after college to move 10 hours away from my family. I told God, “You have ONE year to do whatever you need to do to fix this fear and then I’m on I-95 back to the northeast!” It was one small brave choice after another that equipped me to make this big one. 23 years later I am still 10 hours away from my home-base.
Here is what has struck me as an adult. My parents were not all too worried about me having a hard time. They didn’t enjoy seeing me cry, or fail to comfort me in the midst of my tears. They just didn’t let it consume them, and in turn, it didn’t consume me either.
I grew up with a grandmother who had polio. She used a walker to get around in her small house. My grandfather was a caretaker and respected her a great deal, as did we all. Her short leg made life more complicated for her. As a kid, I knew she had one strange shoe with a big base on it. But I didn’t feel sorry for her. My grandmother, Jane Cassidy, was my hero. A peaceful woman with a gracious heart. A limp, but never a complaint. Unable to run, but always praying. My mom watched her mom struggle all her life. Not despair. Not check out. But muster lots of energy for the simple task of walking. My mom knew that there was an internal strength in my grandmother that surpassed what a pair of good legs could cultivate. Her damaged leg had her embark on a different kind of marathon, one that kept us all admiring her and wanting to be close to her, finding our place on the floor leaning at the base of her tweed, green chair.
In light of what my mom witnessed with her own mom, she had a realistic view of adversity. For my mom, struggle and hardship are like coffee, basic to human life. She possessed no flippancy about it, but a fair expectation that it would come and go, and come again. Underneath it all, she could see the richest of soil, soil where seedlings would be able to germinate and spring up. Both of my parents connected the dots that suffering consequently would produce character. Endurance. Patience. Empathy. Hope. There was no sense in trying to stop it. To try to fix it would have kept us kids stuck in adolescence. To try to fix it would have left us unprepared for our entire lives on planet earth. Their response to suffering was to help us keep pressing forward, all the while sitting right in the middle with us. Attachment and trust build when parents respond that way. No plastic bubble wrap, but companionship and support. If a conflict with a teacher came up, I had to work through it. If a disappointment with a friend, they helped me process what to do without ever stepping in the middle. When I got a job that caused me high stress, my mom would talk me through what I could do, what I was learning and remind me that this was going to get better. She didn’t call the boss or tell me to quit.
I have a snapshot of my six or seven- year-old childhood self sitting under the dining room table at the home of close family friends after arriving for a sleepover. I was sobbing. All I wanted was to be taken home. I am sure our friends called my parents and asked what they thought was best for me. My parents told them, “she can do it.” So I stayed. I don’t even think I eventually had a lift or a good time. But the experience marks a milestone. I had to endure and make it through the night. My parents saw an opportunity for me to face my fear so that in the end my fear would lose its power. That felt, in some odd way, more valuable than the comfort of being picked up. I did it. I was sad and yet I stayed. I was fine. The lesson: I was in no danger. As a counselor, I see irrational fear steal joy and hope from people all the time. If my parents had picked me up, I would have felt “rescued.” The subconscious mind would have told me, “see, it was unsafe to be away from home.” This is what we tell our kids every time we buffer fear: “We’ll save you from a dangerous world and dangerous people that lurk all around you all the time.”
No wonder the anxiety of children has hit record numbers. No wonder we are seeing the signs of depression in young people who have come to sincerely believe that life is scary, hard and not worth living. We have subtly, and mostly with loving intentions, taught our kids to live with more fear than is needed. It’s not wisdom that leads us to fear everyone and everything. The wisdom we want for our children is to know they have an internal strength that will rise up and meet them when hardship hits…
...that there is a God who not only cares about suffering but promises to meet them in it…
...that the sting of pain will hurt badly, but won’t last forever…
...that walking into pain equips them with life skills and compassion to care for others.
The Word of God is meant to wash over us, and build us up with iron-strong trust. Our fears will be exaggerated if we don’t counter them with the truth that God is near and aware of what we are going through. One of the Scriptures I return to often in my mind is from Exodus. God is calling Moses to free His people from the suffering they are experiencing under the Egyptians.
The Lord said, “I have indeed seen the misery of my people in Egypt. I have heard them crying out because of their slave drivers, and I am concerned about their suffering. 8 So I have come down to rescue them from the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey—” (3:7-8).
And yet, for the Israelites, the journey was long and challenging. In the middle of it all, God gave them the daily bread they needed. His companionship carried them. Likewise, He gives Himself to us through family, friends, Creation and Scripture.
When you find yourself falling into fear over your child, pause for a moment. Breathe. Surrender your child every day with hands held out and up. You give them exactly what they need when you live out of peace and trust rather than fear and control. If there is one thing I have learned in life, it is that joy cannot exist without suffering. That gratitude is sincere after we have endured affliction.
So hold off on the bubble wrap or it will suffocate the germinating seeds of a full and meaningful life.