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

Raising sensitive children

You may have heard of the term “Highly sensitive person“ (HSP). Those 15-20% of our population who are born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything. Since you don‘t become highly sensitive at some point but you are from birth on, there are the so called “Highly sensitive children“ hidden in our world. They “grasp subtle changes, prefer to reflect deeply before acting, and generally behave conscientiously“ (Elaine Aron). They are also easily overwhelmed by high levels of stimulation, sudden changes, and the emotional distress of others. Because children are a blend of a number of temperament traits, some HSCs are fairly difficult–active, emotionally intense, demanding, and persistent–while others are calm, turned inward, and almost too easy to raise except when they are expected to join a group of children they do not know. But outspoken and fussy or reserved and obedient, all HSCs are sensitive to their emotional and physical environment.

What these children need is understanding and appreciation for their trait. This is what Elaine Aron, the author of several books on High sensitivity, states and what we certainly agree with. But…

We want to ask you this: What do you think would happen if we raised ALL children AS IF they were highly sensitive ?

And by that we don‘t mean carefully protecting your child from any uncomfortable or overstimulating situation in the world. We mean: when it comes to their emotions – acknowledge, understand, respect, respond and empathize.

Elaine Aron developed a questionnaire to see if your child is highly sensitive or not. It contains questions such as “Does your child startle easy?“ or “Does your child want to change clothes if wet or sandy?“. But it has also questions like “Does your child use big words for his/her age?“ or “Does your child ask deep, thought – provoking questions?“ in it.

Well – you wouldn‘t know until your child was about 3, 4, or 5 years old. What about the 3 years before that? You may not realize that your child is “different“ than others until you become aware of him playing rather quietly on his own than with a group of children, of him talking more or more meaningfully than other children. You may not be surprised by him not liking getting wet and sandy on the playground but see it as something he might get used to eventually.

But the first 3 years of life are crucial. And while we don‘t want to put a diagnosis in your head and consider your child to be highly sensitive we want to raise awareness to sensitivity in general.

Our culture is performance driven. You need to function and you need to function well. There is no time to be wasted to become independent, learn the basics in life and an instrument too. Good manners, the rules of our society and strategies to protect yourself, to compete and become successful. Sensitivity does not really fit in well here. It is usually combined with thoughts of shyness, fearfulness or fussiness. How can a person like that become successful and self-confident?

And so many parents tend to “toughen up their child“. A small scratch, a minor accident with the tricycle or the wrong coloured cup on the breakfast table are said to be “nothing“ and “not a big deal“. Get over it and move on. That‘s life!

But does preparing children for a harsh world by being harsh to them really work?

What if it is true what Robin Grille  (and countless others) suggest – that things like violence and war are not a political but a psychological issue? Wouldn’t it then make sense to celebrate sensitivity in our children in hope that we are raising sensitive people, who understand their own feelings and those of others; who know what they feel and are not afraid of these feelings; who are okay with being sad, angry and scared, as well as being happy and excited?

Dr Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber both advocated an approach to child rearing, where we – parents, caregivers – respect the child for who he is. We believe this also means respecting their feelings and emotions. Even if we sometimes disagree. Even if we don’t understand. Even if they trigger in us something we can’t quite put our finger on, but that makes us uncomfortable.

What would it require us as parents to do?

  • Acknowledge our child’s feelings with respect.
  • Try to understand.
  • Respond, even if you don’t know what it is they are going through.
  • Empathize.

In day-to-day life it would probably mean coming to terms with our children’s strong emotional reactions to things like:

  • Spilled water (on them, on the carpet, on the table, even on someone else);
  • Dirty or wet hands;
  • Wrong kind of shirt. Wrong again. Not this one either;
  • Being too hot or too cold;
  • And countless others.

And while we would more often than not want to say that it doesn’t matter, it matters deeply to our child in that moment. And in fifteen years’ time we will probably think fondly of those moments and want them back. So is it really too much to ask?

It doesn‘t mean protecting your child from any situation that could be harmful. It doesn‘t mean compensating pain or fears with physical contact. It means RESPECTING all sorts of feelings and emotions and RESPONDING to them. It means letting our children do the work of preparing for the world “on their own, with our help”, rather than pushing them to do it faster.

In our recent e-mail exchange Lisa Sunbury says: “I don’t believe you can go wrong with simply validating  and allowing [your child’s] feelings, gently talking with him about what  happened to help him understand, and waiting patiently for him to come  up with answers he feels comfortable with in terms of how to respond  to situations like this. This is his work to do, and yours is to accept him, and offer gentle reassurance …“

‘As parents it’s not our job to toughen up our children to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.’  (L.R. Knost )

Perhaps one way of doing this is by celebrating our children’s sensitivity?

What do you think? We can’t wait to hear your thoughts!

Nadine & Anna