The other day, I was reaching over to offer my two year old some leverage as she attempted to scale the mountain of our double jogging stroller when she batted my arms away and shook her head, saying in her adamant toddler style, “No, Mommy, no. I do it by self.”
Her tenacity impressed me. It also, I admit, made me uneasy to see my child toil like a turtle on its back when I knew I could easily step in to help her. But I forced myself to resist the urge to save my daughter from frustration.
Like most parents, I don’t want anything to thwart my children’s happiness. I want so badly for things to work out for them that I’m sometimes tempted to take away all their struggles. Other times, it’s difficult to say no when my child asks for another bedtime story while batting those long lashes, or when she asks politely for a toy she’s had her eye on for months.
And don’t get me started on the emotional and physical wounds the world inflicts upon my precious offspring. When I recently heard my daughter’s sharp sobs and saw a trail of blood running down her face after a head-on collision with an unruly Wii remote in the hands of her big sister, I was far more traumatized than my bleeding little one.
My mama-bear instinct is strong. It’s what drives me to safeguard my cherubs from everything from food additives to boogey men. Though I haven’t always been this way.
Before I became a mom, I rolled my eyes at doting, smothering parents and resolved to be more of a no-pain-no-gain hardliner when I had kids. I was never going to be one of those helicopter parents, I told myself, who hovered over their kids and swooped in to provide aid before their children even sent out an SOS. What doesn’t kill kids makes them stronger.
My how things change.
From the moment I conceived my first child, I was overwhelmed with an intense desire to protect my baby and to keep her safe. One day I was on a walk during my first pregnancy, and — preggo klutz that I was — I tripped on an uneven part of a sidewalk. I was headed belly-first for the ground, but somehow I managed to throw my body to the side, and it was my hip that first made contact with the concrete.
Nothing was going to hurt my baby. Nothing.
Only now I see that things hurt my babies all of the time. Sometimes it’s even —
gasp! — me who’s doing the hurting, by gently but firmly saying no to their pleas. There are rainy days when it’s supposed to be sunny so we can venture out to the zoo. There are dinners not followed by dessert. There are new, nursing babies who take up too much of Mommy’s time.
One day, my kids will likely face much bigger disappointments — broken hearts, rejections from colleges and employers, backstabbing friends, missed opportunities, and maybe worse.
There’s no escaping it: Pain is a part of the human condition. Welcome to life, kiddos. It’s full of disappointments.
The world is chipping away at my children’s innocent hearts every day. And yet, as tough as it is for a mother who is designed to love her children fiercely and deeply, I know it’s not my job to inoculate them against all the angst of life.
Thomas Paine said, “What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.” And didn’t God say something very similar when He sacrificed His only Son for us so that we could have life? One drop of Christ’s blood could have saved us all, yet He freely chose to shed every last bit of it. He gave what is beyond sufficient, so that we might recognize the power of sacrificial love.
But we often don’t get it. Neither do our kids. After all, it’s not PC to talk about suffering or sacrifice anymore. Why struggle when there’s an easier way? Why take the moral high road when there’s a quicker detour at every turn?
Counterfeit praise is distributed more freely than candy on Halloween. Standards for competence have been lowered or removed completely. Soccer games with no scoreboards. Awarding a tone-deaf child a solo in the school musical for fear that the truth that she can’t hold a tune might crush her. Eliminating honors societies in public schools so Average Joe won’t feel excluded.
The problem is that an artificial inflation of self-esteem only sharpens our children’s disappointment in the real world. What happens when they realize they have to do more than just show up at work to stand out and get ahead? How will they cope when faced with true adversity, if everything in life has been handed to them? How will they ever learn to embrace “Thy will be done” instead of “My will be done”?
As a mother, I’m here to teach my children to solve their own problems, not to be a slave to their longings. I’m here to gently guide them, not to micromanage their lives. I’m here to offer empathy but not always to take away the pain. I won’t boost their self-esteems by doing everything for them or by not insisting they take personal responsibility for their actions.
Ultimately, I want my children to recognize that we are entitled to very little except for God’s love. I want them to work hard as well as to see the redemptive value of suffering. But that won’t happen if I toss them a lifesaver at the first sign of distress, even when every ounce of my maternal being wants to do just that.
No wonder it’s called “tough love.”
As I watched my toddler wrestle with the stroller over the hard concrete, you better believe I made sure my arms were ready to catch her should she stumble, but I allowed her to struggle. In doing so, perhaps I gave her a small lesson in fortitude as well as a taste of triumph after perseverance. And it was her own glory for the taking.
When she finally clambered into her seat, her smile and proud exclamation said it all: “I did it all by self, Mommy!”
Yes, you did, little one. Yes, you did.