Struggling vs Suffering

No parent wants to see their children suffer. We want to surround them, protect them, and help in any way we can. I’m a parent. I get this.

However, there’s a really big difference between a child “suffering” and “struggling.” Struggling is a necessary part of learning. When we learn to walk, we struggle. We fall down. A LOT. We keep pushing ourselves past that point of frustration in order to take those first steps. It’s natural. It’s developmental. It’s necessary.

Struggling is nature’s way of helping us move along to the next level. It’s gamification (I really don’t like that term, but that’s another blog post) in reality. If we didn’t have to struggle to learn something, there wouldn’t be the sense of accomplishment we gain in order to want to keep improving. Struggling helps us move beyond the need for instant gratification.

When we protect our children from struggling, we deprive them of a very important step in the learning process.

I watched the movie Ray again over the weekend. In one scene after Ray has just lost his sight as a child, he falls off a chair in his childhood home. His cries for his mother are heartbreaking. She stands there silently, tears streaming down her face… and she doesn’t help him. As much as she wants to go pick him up and console him, she doesn’t move. Ray wasn’t hurt, and he wasn’t in danger. He struggled to pick himself up, walk around his home, and learn how to navigate using his sense of hearing, smell, and touch. After a few minutes, he stops crying, and he begins to smile. He walks around his home, and you can see that the struggle is fading… the accomplishment is clear. Soon, he senses his mother standing nearby. He speaks softly to her and says, “I know you’re right here,” pointing directly at her.

This scene really stuck with me. I know Hollywood took quite a bit of license here, but I also know that Ray Charles often spoke about how his mother, Aretha Robinson, really taught him to fend for himself. To be independent. She didn’t enable him when he lost his sight. She knew he would have to learn to function differently.

How often do we allow our children to struggle? How many times do we swoop in and rescue kids who don’t really need to be rescued?

Please don’t misunderstand me as write this… there are a lot of kids suffering in situations where learning has become painful. Where life in general is painful. Those kids need rescuing.

There are, however, a lot of kids who are never allowed to struggle, and we are doing them a huge disservice. They need to fall down. They need to learn how to pick themselves up again. They need opportunities to struggle in learning without fear of great penalties.

Struggle is important. Without it, are we truly learning?


UPDATED: I just read an article today: 5 Things Teachers Wish Parents Knew: Your Children Can Do More Than You Think. There are a couple of sections in there that complement the idea of “struggle.”

One thought on “Struggling vs Suffering

  1. Philip Cummings

    Excellent point, Michelle! I know this is true, and yet, it’s still hard to watch my own children struggle. I wish I didn’t want to rescue them. I wish I were better at letting them struggle, but honestly it’s tough to watch. I know it’s better for them if I do, and yet something deep inside me wants to reach out and catch them before they fall. Thanks for the gentle reminder that doing what’s best as a parent is sometimes counter-intuitive and is rarely easy.

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