Raise your hand if you enjoy struggling. If your hand is raised, then you are a liar liar pants on fire. None of us enjoy the uncomfortable feelings that accompany struggle. And yet, research shows that our brains grow the most when we struggle and work at the edge of our abilities. So while struggle will never feel enjoyable for most of us, it is necessary for our growth mentally, physically, and spiritually (James 1:2-4). However, our human tendency is to avoid anything that feels like a struggle. So how can we deal with the discomfort in a positive way that will ultimately build us up in the same way that strenuous exercise builds muscle? By learning to struggle well.
A Tale of Two Children
This concept is at the center of my goals for my children, both in school and in life this year. They both have strongly negative reactions to struggle, but for different reasons. My oldest child tends to shut down when he gets overwhelmed or frustrated. For him, the key to struggling well is to put a positive label on the process and teach him strategies for coping with the uncomfortable feelings, as well as training him in how to get himself out of a spiral of negativity through positive self-talk. (I found this article incredibly helpful in figuring out why my son is this way and how to help him.)
My youngest is a Mini-Me who doesn’t like to struggle because she fears making mistakes. She is strong, talented, and capable of taking on just about any challenge you throw at her. But the flip side of being strong and talented is that you can falsely come to believe that you are only loved and accepted when you are doing everything right and pleasing those around you, so failure and mistakes are not an option. I know because I believed that lie most of my life, and it’s taken years of daily meditation on God’s word to help me uncover the truth that God loves me just as I am, imperfections and all. So for my daughter, my focus is on praising her for her reaches (a concept borrowed from The Talent Code that applies to the efforts we make outside our comfort zone that stretch us), and rewarding her for improvements in her attitude, rather than just her accomplishments.
Why Struggle Well?
My husband, who is a college professor, can tell you that the ones who cheat in his classes are generally the top students who will do anything to keep their top student status because they have no coping skills when they’re suddenly in over their heads and the work becomes a struggle. Parents, we have to teach our kids that it’s okay to try and fail and struggle at times. We do this by modeling it. When I take risks in cooking or try converting a recipe to be gluten free or Paleo, sometimes it works and sometimes it is an epic fail. When I get discouraged by (the many) failed attempts, I have to remember that they’re watching to see if I’ll give up or keep trying. So I keep trying, which gives me credibility when I encourage them to view their mistakes as learning opportunities instead of giving up and insisting on taking the easy, comfortable road.
Lessons From the Maze
So how can we, as parents, learn to face our own struggles in a way that models for our kids how to struggle well? Does this mean that we all just need to put our nose to the grindstone, determined to take our proverbial medicine and struggle through every challenge life throws at us? Definitely not! My family recently enjoyed a gorgeous fall day wandering around inside a corn maze at a nearby farm. What made it feel slightly less rat-like was a treasure hunt with hidden stations throughout the maze. My husband was rockin’ the map like Dora the Explorer – “Saaaaaay MAP!” (sorry if that reference invokes a PTSD episode) – but we still got turned around a few times. Our experience in the maze gave me a few insights on some creative strategies we can use when we hit a wall, instead of running away from the struggle or just shutting down.
Look Beyond the Problem to Other Possible Solutions
One of the strategies I used when we were lost in the maze was to look through the corn stalks to the paths on either side of us to see if I could spot a station. When something isn’t working, it’s tempting to just keep trudging ahead, assuming that there’s no other way to reach the goal, no matter how fruitless the way feels. But sometimes the right path is within reach, if we can force ourselves to look beyond the problem (and how we feel about the problem) to possible solutions available to us.
Maybe that curriculum we bought worked initially or with one child, but it’s not working anymore and needs to be set aside (along with our pride – ouch). Or maybe the child’s personality and learning style needs to be taking into account, and that same curriculum tweaked to fit each child.
Look at the Big Picture to Gain Perspective
Our maze had a bridge with a high platform that you had to cross. At one point, when we were stuck, my daughter figured out that we had to go up on the platform and come down the stairs on the other side in order to continue on our path. As I stood up there, looking out over row after row of golden cornstalks, I saw something beautiful: the edge of the maze. Sometimes we need to step back and look at the big picture so we can ascertain whether or not our current struggle is leading us toward or away from our ultimate goal, which is to not only finish the maze, but finish well with our relationships intact!
Sometimes, when we look at our big picture goals, we see that a particular struggle is unnecessary and leading us down the wrong path. Maybe those music lessons we’ve been forcing or that sports team that dominates all our family time reflect someone else’s goals, not ours. But if our goals are to develop a love of music or lifestyle of fitness, we can then ask ourselves if these activities are leading our kids toward or away from those goals, then make adjustments accordingly.
Listen to Others
Another strategy I used when we knew we were getting close to a treasure hunt station was to listen for the sound of voices, because chances are if you hear voices, they just might be gathered around the station themselves. This actually worked a couple times! As we met up with others, there were several times when we answered questions and helped them figure out how to do the treasure hunt.
Sometimes we feel so alone in the maze and we forget that there are lots of others on our same journey. We were designed for community and relationships. We weren’t meant to struggle through the maze alone. Just like I encourage my kids to ask questions when they don’t understand something, I need to be willing to ask others for help and be teachable. Sometimes a timely word of encouragement from someone who’s “been there” is all it takes to help me keep going.
Don’t Be Afraid to Get Off the Beaten Path and Have Fun!
All work and no play makes the maze feel like a rat race. When we stopped making progress in the maze and started getting discouraged, I whipped out my camera and started staging goofy pictures. At one point I shocked the kids by announcing, “If it’s in that general direction, let’s just cut through the maze,” and then proceeded to weave through the cornstalks (which, admittedly, took us to an entirely different maze, but the kids got a kick out of it). Sometimes, in life and in the maze, we take risks that don’t turn out the way we’d hoped. In those circumstances, keeping your sense of humor intact will make all the difference between a miserable experience and a really good story.
It’s often when I’m feeling “stuck” or frustrated with a child that what I most need is to take a break and go play with that child in a way that’s fun for both of us. If you and a particular child regularly butt heads, although it feels counter-intuitive to how you feel, go on a date with that child. If everyone in the house is grumpy, go out for pizza at the arcade or have a family fun night where one person chooses a game, one person picks a dessert, and another chooses a movie. Laughter truly is the best medicine, so turn on your favorite movie that elicits a belly laugh when you’re in the midst of struggles. It may not get you off of the difficult path you’re on, but a joyful, positive mindset will make the journey so much more enjoyable for you and those around you.
Look at the Map and Look Up!
So how do we know when we’re struggling because we need to take a different path or when we need to just hang in there? What works for me is prayer and regular time spent gazing at the “map,” my Bible. James 1:5 reminds us, “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” The good news is that we don’t have to figure it all out alone! God invites us to ask for wisdom, not because there’s one right way to do something and we’re hosed if we don’t get the divine thumbs up, but because he loves us and wants us to share the journey with him. Perhaps you’re at a dead end: a marriage that is hanging by a thread, a sudden job loss, an unfulfilled dream. You’re not alone. The God of the universe wants to share the journey with you, help you figure out where to go next, remind you that you’re not alone, and even give you joy in the midst of your struggles.
Keep praying, keep listening, keep reaching out to others, and remember that nothing is impossible with God! (Even getting out of that dumb corn maze.)
Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, “This is the way; walk in it.” – Isaiah 30:21
And now, as promised in my Pledge to be real with y’all, here’s what I’m NOT doing today as I sit on the couch and type in my sweats:
- Feeding my kids. They helped themselves to gluten free pop tarts for breakfast – God bless you, Fred Meyer, for putting them on clearance at 50% off this week. (I bought 10 boxes.)
- Teaching my kids lessons for school. This is their writing day, too. (Thank you Julie Bogart, author of the Brave Writer series, for pointing out the value in just letting my kids practice getting their thoughts down on paper so that I can justify my course of action, even though the main reason for “writing day” is that it’s rainy and we’re all tired.)
- Laundry. Here is my messy laundry room, with a case of tomato sauce on the floor – don’t ask me why it’s been there for 2 years – and a dog who regularly decides that the best time to go eat his food is when I’m trying to do laundry in that space (because you haven’t done laundry until you’ve done it while straddling a 35 lb. dog).
Yes, that black thing is a dog.
Read Full Post »