I want to look again this week at Paul Tough’s book How Children Succeed, this time about how responsive, calm, affectionate attention helps children become “more self-confident, more curious, and better able to deal with setbacks” – especially that “dealing with setbacks” part. I hate that part. I look at my two infant grandchildren and don’t ever want them to suffer.
The importance of holding and loving our babies is pretty easy compared to watching them – letting them – face failures and setbacks and suffering as they grow. I wanted to wrap my own children in protective gauze when they were little. When my first was about two months old, I had him in a front-carrier with a cape wrapped around us both to shield him from Colorado’s winter wind. A friend stopped me on the street and said, “I thought you’d already had your baby!” I unwrapped the cape and commented, “I’m now wearing him on the outside.” I remember another friend whose baby weaned herself at 15 months; “I would have nursed her till she went away to college,” was the mom’s wistful response. We both clearly had that “hold and love” part down pat.
Reminder: We are all beloved children of God. As one of the brothers from the Society of St. John the Evangelist commented, there are no “adults of God.” That doesn’t, however, mean that we get to stay un-weaned infants. God wraps us in love, yes – but then sends us out, as parents need to send their children out of their safe and nurturing arms. (Sigh.) Paul Tough cites Dominic Randolph: “…the best way for a young person to develop character is for him [or her] to attempt something where there is real and serious possibility of failure, [where] you’re also more likely to achieve real and original success. The idea of building grit and building self-control is that you get that through failure.” Ouch.
We don’t like watching our children fail, or fall, or suffer. On the other hand, we want them to flourish, to have courage and self-control and grace under pressure.
What does Scripture say here? Look at dear, bumbling Peter. He failed, losing faith, sinking in the water, denying even knowing our Lord. But he became the Rock on which the church was built. Or consider Jesus himself. By any human measure, he failed. Certainly he suffered untold, unbearable agony. “Setbacks” doesn’t begin to describe his Passion. And yet, out of his arrest, torture, death – out of seeming failure – the Church was born. Only through suffering and death is resurrection possible.
So what does that mean for how we tend our children (and grandchildren) as they move beyond infancy into childhood? Once again, protective gauze sounds like a good option – but, according to both science and Scripture, not for the long haul. We need to let them fail, let them enter situations that involve potential setbacks, where they might (I hate this) suffer.
Providing calm, responsive, loving attention throughout such childhood endeavors as Chutes & Ladders, hide and seek, Monopoly, music lessons, chess, competitive sports, competitions in the arts, spelling bees, tough classes – all these are ways to let kids know that life sometimes involves losing. Because, no matter how much we love them, they will lose. They will fail. They will suffer. If they can’t do that at home and in the neighborhood and at school, they won’t know how to face the bigger, scarier setbacks ahead. Our job isn’t to protect them, but to encourage and support them.
Ours is a faith built on seeming-failure, one that doesn’t see even death as the end. What science and Scripture agree is that out of such suffering comes new life, strength of character, the capacity to survive, gratitude, determination – and, ultimately, fullness of life.