Degrees of struggle

Kala_struggle_MiMThere is a story about a butterfly you must have heard – a man was watching a butterfly struggling to emerge from his cocoon. The butterfly seemed like it was having a hard time cutting through and coming out into the world, so the man decided to help – he took scissors and cut the cocoon open. The butterfly came out without a problem, but his wings were all wrinkled and weak. The man was waiting for the butterfly to stretch his wings and fly, but it never did. It only walked around dragging its wings behind…

Infant educator Magda Gerber Said: ‘If you can learn to struggle you can learn to live’. Easier said than done? Surely. But why?

Struggle comes in degrees

Struggle is an integral part of our lives, and if we can learn to deal with it, if we can learn to cope, we can learn to live to the fullest. It’s not bad. It’s not good. It just is. The fascinating thing about struggle is that we have come to believe that it comes in degrees, and it only ever comes in the intensity we can handle… well, usually.

Right now we are observing our tiny baby daughters taking first steps (no, no, not literally – not yet!) in the world filled with struggle. We are looking at them deal with their frustrations, as they learn new skills, master new movements, notice new things.

The other day Kala was lying on the side lifting her head up ever so slightly, and then banging it with her whole strength on the floor. She cried. I knelt down and talked to her, then picked her up. When I put her down, she rolled onto her side and … of course, did the whole thing again. And again. The fourth time she was very careful placing her head on the floor, so very careful. You could see the intensity of experience, the focus, the relief and finally the pride on her face. (Anna)

Learning comes with struggle, but if we protect our babies from the daily struggle from the very beginning, we might be doing what the man in the butterfly story did – we might be preventing them from experiencing the degree of struggle that is necessary for them now to be able to fly later.

Learning to struggle is the first real experience of learning to deal with frustration, emotions, fears and anxieties. The first opportunity to live life to the fullest, with all its ups and downs, floors and blankets, bruises and laughs.  What better way to learn to struggle than in a safe place, with our beloved mum or dad nearby?

This tiny (in our eyes) struggle to reach a toy, to roll over, to get out from under the chair is exactly the level of struggle our kids are designed to endure… and overcome. The older we grow, the bigger the struggles in front of us.

First it’s your head on the floor;

Then a toy that is too far to reach;

You got stuck under a table;

Your Mum or Dad disappeared behind the doors;

Then it’s a fight with a friend over who will get to use the yellow tractor;

A ball that you wanted to kick but missed;

Not exactly the grade you wanted at school;

An exam you failed;

A friend who turned out not to be one;

But maybe, just maybe, if we were allowed to experience the tiniest of struggles in the beginning of our adventure on Earth, we can move on and be prepared to face it all with courage, dignity and the ability to get up and go on when YOU are ready.

In those first moments of struggle if we are present, if we manage not to take it all away, we are teaching our kids a very powerful lesson – that struggle is not bad, it’s not good, it just is. And maybe we are preparing them for a wonderfully full life, when once they fly out from our homes they will be ready to face the world with all its bruises and laughs. Because we didn’t take it all away when they were oh so tiny – but because we were there with them, right there on the floor, crying with them and picking them up, but not taking their struggles away.

Whose struggle is it, anyway?

Why do we struggle when our child struggles? Struggle equals emotions, and so we have to face not only our child’s emotions, but also our own. Our own emotions that have to do with our child’s cries, discomfort, but also our own emotions about the way WE struggle… or choose not to.

Mona has been a real “Zen-Baby“. She was happy from day one. She loves to play on her own for long periods of time. She barely cries or screams. She is taking her time when it comes to gross motor development. She tried to roll onto her tummy for months. Barely showing any frustration if she didn‘t. And if she struggled it was still quiet and calm. I was with her. I held her and then she went on. Right now she is working hard on a sitting posture.  And she wants to get up onto higher furnishings. She realized that she doesn‘t always has to stay on the floor. So she wants to be up. Up up up. But she can‘t. She tries. And she cries. Her crying is complaining. Louder and full of voice now. No more Zen. And it is harder for me to cope. With the noise and the fact that it is still such a long way to go until she will be where she wants to be. (Nadine)

Part of our struggle as an adult is that we know the big picture. We know what we could achieve and if we don‘t, if we struggle, we are upset and it‘s hard to deal with it. We see three steps ahead but often we oversee the power of the moment.

If we step in too quickly in the moment of struggle, if we give them the last push to rolling over, hand them the toy their tiny arms can‘t reach we don‘t just help the butterfly leave the cocoon. We send another message that says: “This now is not it. See over there, behind those big mountains? This is the world. This is where you should be.“ And we take their ability to live right now. In this very moment.

And then, the bigger the struggles are, the higher the mountains become. And we become frustrated. We oversee the small hills in between. We aim for the big ones, we run, jump and… we might fall, because we have underestimated the distance between here and now. We do this once, twice. And then… Well, we suppose most of you know what‘s next. We give up. We‘re fearful. Avoiding. And we can‘t deal with that either. Because we weren‘t able to deal with the small hills.

So, to support our sons and daughters, we have chosen to let them struggle. We don’t walk away leaving them there, we don’t turn our heads, but we also don’t take it away from them. We try to empower them by being there, by making sure they have us right there when they need us, by being their rock and their tree. We let them get out of their cocoons “on their own, with our help”, in the hope that their beautiful wings will take them up when they’re ready.

How do you cope with your child’s struugles? What helps you believe that they can do it? We LOVE to hear from you!

Anna & Nadine

One thought on “Degrees of struggle

  1. Exactly what I needed to read! Such relevance as my 5mth old son recently rolled onto his belly for first and gets those legs in motion to crawl…except his face gets in the way on the ground! I’m so tempted to help him constantly with this but otherwise do lovingly patient to help him learn other skills that don’t seem to frustrate him as this developmental milestone is. Nadine’s words about finding a sitting posture and her daughter wanting to go “up, up, up” were also so similar and my son, Kane, is also finding a comfortable sitting posture and wanting to scoot on his butt it seems. Thanks for this reminder! I’ll always be there for him to “help” him struggle and help him when the struggling gets too tough.

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