Updated: May 8
By: Patricia R. Hamilton, MS, LMFT
One spring, a young girl found a cocoon in her garden. Inside was a butterfly struggling to break free. For hours she watched it strain its tiny limbs against the sides, making no progress. And she cried for the little creature. Finally the girl went inside and found some scissors. She carefully cut an opening in the cocoon and the butterfly emerged easily, too easily. It looked strange, its body swollen and its wings shriveled. It would never fly. Years later, she understood that the butterfly needs to struggle. The work of straining against its cocoon allows it to grow wings and become its true self.
Struggle is necessary.
It takes 18 to 25 years for a person to prepare for adulthood. Children learn by trial and error. One day at a time, year after year, children learn how to face challenges and adversity with growing courage and determination. If relieved of the struggle, children do not build agency and self confidence. They become fragile, anxious, and often angry adults.
It is important for parents not to intervene too quickly. Help, demonstrate, but do not take over. Too much frustration can be detrimental, but allowing your child to work through a problem or task, provides them the opportunity to develop creativity, think critically, analyze information and situations, and to solve increasingly complex problems. Self esteem is built on a child's authentic experience, what they discover, and what they come to know about themselves to be true.
Agency is the byproduct of learning through experience, the correlation between effort and success. It is a cognitive process. When children want to do something, they set a purpose, figure out how to approach the task, deal with the frustration of trial and error, analyze what's going wrong, and try again, perhaps many times. When they finally succeed, they have also learned something about perseverance and tenacity. Agency is believing in one's own ability, learned from experience.
Applaud your child's effort, creative ideas, and willingness to stick-to-it until the problem is solved. When parents jump in too quickly, the unspoken message to the child is you can't do it. They internalize this belief as true. Children learn that struggle and frustration are feelings to avoid. They resist taking on new challenges. They learn to wait for others to lead and do the heavy lifting. This is the birthplace of victimhood, blaming others, and dodging accountability, low self esteem and feeling unworthy.
We are all in a hurry and so often there isn't enough time for our little ones to struggle with even the most basic, fundamental tasks, like putting on their own clothes and pushing their chubby little feet into their own socks and shoes. But, it is important for kids to struggle. Agency is built on all their little victories, one day at a time, year after year. So, yes, it is worth it to get up a half an hour earlier in the morning so they can struggle through these little tasks all by themselves. Don't do for your children what they can learn to do for themselves. Offer plenty of guidance and applause for their effort.