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

Learning to live

In their play, babies 6-12 months acquire a range of skills we know are necessary for them later on in life. A range of movements is one of them, but there are other, less obvious skills our babies are working on – ones that might have a huge impact on how they deal with different tasks later on, things that might impact not only the way they play, but the way they socialize, work, discover, and deal with failure. We have observed two amazing things our boys are mastering when they play – how to struggle, and how to self-regulate. Both of these are vital, and both come along as part and parcel of free play.

Play as struggle

Observe your baby’s hard work and the constant practice of arm- and leg coordination to move around. He will try and get on hands and knees. He will swing back and forth. He will fall down. Most likely – he will not like this. He will face struggle. And frustration. YOU will face struggle and frustration too. Because you know how it could work. You could jump in and try and help. But you can’t teach him. And so you will have to learn to sit on your hands and watch. Watch your child struggle, and watch yourself struggle as well – notice that it is not only his journey, but also yours. Both together and separately, you are learning how to struggle. Each of you on a level that is suitable for your own stage of development.

Our first impulse might be to pick the baby up and hold him. Comfort him. Maybe walk him around a little. Feed him. Anything that will make him happy. Alternatively we could give him a chance to practice a bit more. To try a little harder. How? By sitting nearby saying: „You are really upset because you want to move forward.“ Well. Both ways the baby will eventually learn to move around. No matter how and when, right? Right?

Right. But what do I tell my child when I pick him up as soon as he struggles?

“You are struggling. You can’t achieve what you are trying to and that frustrates you. I don’t think you can do it right now so stay here with me and focus on something else.” You might not choose those words and surely this isn‘t the message you want to send. But this might be what your child is hearing in you helping him out of his dilemma too early.

Instead you can trust your child to handle not just the struggle, but also the frustration. To be able to deal with it. You also give yourself the chance to endure those moments. In the end they are not just part of the process of the gross motor development. They are part of a person’s life. The earlier we learn that anger and frustration are ok and not “bad” (http://everymomentisright.blogspot.nl/2011/09/my-feelings-are-real-or-day-all-hell.html) the earlier we will learn to handle and overcome them. Some of us, adults, are still working on that – and that’s ok. Maybe this is our chance to learn along with our children, that age-appropriate struggle and frustration are part of the journey?

And yes – in the end – all children will move around one day. Some earlier. Some later. They may be struggling with their journey, and we as parents are also learning not only to let them struggle sometimes – this is our learning experience as well. Wouldn’t it be easier to just pick them up and teach them about the world? Without all the struggle?

And some might enjoy a long stretch on their back in their play area. In fact when you carefully observe you will find out that children tend to go back and play while lying on their back. Because that is their safe place; their comfort place. They feel safe and secure in that position (if they have experienced the first months on their backs as relaxing and enjoyable). So when learning a new ability that takes times and effort it is important to rest. To take breaks and relax. Children are capable of doing so much more than we do. They naturally don‘t do more than is needed. Heinrich Jacoby actually said that children are appropriate. By that he meant – economical. They would not use any more muscles to sit or crawl than needed. IF they had the chance to develop all those milestones themselves. In their own time. At their own pace.

Play as self-regulation

Letting our children play as they want to, how long they want to, and letting them be the leader, we will soon notice that children know when to stop. They quickly learn when they have had enough and need a break, and you might see them going back to their most comfortable position, stopping the action for a moment. It might be tempting to step in and offer something to do right then – instead try to stop and observe. We are living in a world where we are constantly on the move, we have long since lost touch with the regulation nature offers us (who goes to bed when it gets dark?), but we still have the chance to listen to our own bodies. Our children know when they need time to recharge, let them do it. They need it to be able to go on. Here is another thing we might learn from babies – self-regulation.

Observing their play over a long period of time you will find that there are different phases. One of them is called the relaxing phase – where they relax from what they have just done. This can be rolling onto their back watching the shadows on the walls after practicing crawling for a while. This could also mean running around the table like crazy after having solved a puzzle (in older children obviously).

So when we see our crawling baby lie on their back, our walking baby crawl – that‘s ok. More than that – it is important. It shows that they still have abilities most of us adults have lost over the years.

What are the skills you think your baby is learning in their free play? We LOVE to hear your thoughts!

Nadine & Anna