A Springboard to Accomplishment
November 13th, 2012

When we are being honest we will admit that our culture isn’t perfect.  This is true of every culture on the planet.  We all have our strengths, but we also have our weaknesses.  And unless we are willing to cop to those weaknesses, they will continue to plague us.  I started thinking about this yesterday after listening to this piece on Morning Edition about Eastern vs. Western perspectives on struggle.

The piece begins with a poignant description of a fourth grade classroom in Japan.  As the children are being taught to draw three-dimensional cubes on two-dimensional paper it is the child who is having the most trouble with the lesson who is selected to do his work on the board.  Reporter Alix Spiegel aptly notes that in the U.S. this would be considered cruel and unusual.  We would never want to publicly humiliate a child by announcing his failure to grasp the material.

In the Japanese classroom, though, the reaction is vastly different.  As the child fails to get it right and repeatedly keeps trying, the other students patiently wait (apparently without any kind of teasing or mockery – that alone impressed me a great deal) until he finally mastered the cube, at which point his fellow students broke out into applause.  In Eastern cultures this kind of struggle is part and parcel of the learning process; something to be embraced and conquered rather than a source of shame or inadequacy.

My children are growing up smack dab in the middle of America.  We’re doing our best to expose our kids to a variety of cultures, and to help them understand at a core level that there are lots of different approaches to life.  The fact remains, though, that in this part of the country long-standing cultural norms are strong and not often diluted by influences from other cultures.  We will have to work hard to infiltrate those norms with awareness of different paths.  This may be easy enough when another culture’s way of doing something is more fun or interesting.  But getting kids to sign up for more struggle is going to be a tough sell.

Already IEP is reluctant to keep after something that he finds tricky.  When a sweater sleeve gets turned wrong-side out he comes to me to right it.  When he gets to the final few bites of oatmeal in the bottom of the bowl he asks for help in scooping them out.  And far too often (work- and school-day mornings do not lend themselves to embracing struggle…) I oblige him.  There are times, though, when I decline.  When he can’t find a puzzle piece and wants me to help him look.  When he turns a backwards shirt around on his own because I’m in the shower.  When he cuts his food with the side of his fork because I’m busy feeding his brother.  And in these situations, when he figures it out for himself, his pride and satisfaction are palpable.

I try in these moments to point out to him how capable he is, and how good it feels to do something successfully even though it was hard.  I think I need to step back even further, though.  Explaining to a four-year-old in abstract terms that “Isn’t it nice to have a genuine sense of accomplishment?” won’t get us to a place where he fully embraces struggle as a part of learning.  We are all steeped in the belief that it is superior to find things easy in the first place, rather than to conquer things that are hard.  Overcoming that belief will require us all to experience firsthand the value of the struggle.

Struggle is uncomfortable for most of us.  We don’t see it as the springboard to accomplishment.  But perhaps with time - and some struggle itself – we can.

6 Responses to “A Springboard to Accomplishment”

  1. anne Says:

    This morning my daughter made the “help” sign so I’d cut up….HER BANANA. Not necessary. And yet…it was hard not to just appease her.

  2. Kristen @ Motherese Says:

    I’m reading The Power of Habit right now and last night I read the chapter on the importance of willpower in creating and maintaining positive habits. That chapter and your post have me thinking about the ways in which I do my kids no favors by rushing in to help them too quickly.

  3. BigLittleWolf Says:

    What an interesting (and little discussed) aspect of parenting, Gale. The notion of “struggle” which is something that too many adults are living in this country, yet simultaneously attempting to siphon off the struggle for their children.

    It’s a matter of degree (and circumstance), of course. In my opinion, a “culture of (reasonable) struggle” is the farthest thing from most parents’ minds, for kids of any age.

    To some extent, the child will dictate (or try to) the ability for a parent to avoid doing for them when the child can and needs to do for himself or herself. I had one son who was naturally more independent (and also more demanding); the other, a bit in the clouds and on the small side, I tended to do more for out of fear of him coming to harm. Like I said – circumstances.

    That said, we can also reinforce the value of that struggle / accomplishment by affirming that now that he learned to do something so well on his own, he’ll be able to help you, to help / teach friends, be the Big Brother, etc. Again, this works better with some kids than others.

    It’s tricky. But if doing too much goes on for too many years, it’s a whole lot tougher to get them independent as they get a little older.

    Nothing’s easy in this Parenting Gig, is it…

  4. e Says:

    Six exceedingly independent children later, I can understand where you’re coming from. At the same time in this world of cooperating that we expect (or demand) from them, is it so wrong to give a helping hand when they ask for it? I guess what we strived to do was to help them set goals so high that help was often necessary. Why write a boring book report when you can sing (to your own piano accompaniment) that book report? Would she have done it completely on her own? Probably not – but the next time a book report was assigned, her creativity stretched itself and she tackled it. I understand that we can’t do it for them, but my experience says help out so goals are way up there…..but reachable. It makes parenting an awful lot of fun as you watch them soar. Trust me – the day will come when they won’t want or accept help. I don’t believe for a minute we eliminated pride in accomplishment. Don’t over think this parenting thing. Do what feels good for you and them! It will all work out in the end.

  5. Aidan Donnelley Rowley Says:

    Such a thoughtful post, Gale. You’ve inspired me to tackle some of these questions on my own blog. Stay tuned ;)

  6. Jane Says:

    We try so hard to make it easier on our kids than it was while we were growing up, forgetting that the struggle is what makes the journey worth it all. Thanks for the reminder!