Monday, May 12, 2014

Struggle: The Recipe for Grit, Resilience, and Grace

Image: Butterfly photoby , Ever Widening Circles:

In the developed world, we have worked our way right into what I’d like to call an “excess of ease”: many of us have the luxury to shelter our kids from almost every form of struggle while some of us even become the go-to problem solver in our extended families and friend groups.

And in many of these cases, it only feels natural to the problem solver and solvee.

The following story, taken from Wisconsin’s Mid-State Technical College’s website ( is an interesting look at the long term consequences of our urge to save our loved ones (our children in particular) from experiencing struggle. It left me dumbstruck.

Once a little boy was playing outdoors and found a fascinating caterpillar. He carefully picked it up and took it home to show his mother. He asked his mother if he could keep it, and she said he could if he would take good care of it.

The little boy got a large jar from his mother and put plants to eat, and a stick to climb on, in the jar. Every day he watched the caterpillar and brought it new plants to eat.

One day the caterpillar climbed up the stick and started acting strangely. The boy worriedly called his mother who came and understood that the caterpillar was creating a cocoon. The mother explained to the boy how the caterpillar was going to go through a metamorphosis and become a butterfly.

The little boy was thrilled to hear about the changes his caterpillar would go through. He watched every day, waiting for the butterfly to emerge. One day it happened, a small hole appeared in the cocoon and the butterfly started to struggle to come out.

At first the boy was excited, but soon he became concerned. The butterfly was struggling so hard to get out! It looked like it couldn’t break free! It looked desperate! It looked like it was making no progress!

The boy was so concerned he decided to help. He ran to get scissors, and then walked back (because he had learned not to run with scissors …). He snipped the cocoon to make the hole bigger and the butterfly quickly emerged!

As the butterfly came out the boy was surprised. It had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings. He continued to watch the butterfly expecting that, at any moment, the wings would dry out, enlarge and expand to support the swollen body. He knew that in time the body would shrink and the butterfly’s wings would expand.

But neither happened! The butterfly spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly …

As the boy tried to figure out what had gone wrong his mother took him to talk to a scientist from a local college. He learned that the butterfly was SUPPOSED to struggle.

In fact, the butterfly’s struggle to push its way through the tiny opening of the cocoon pushes the fluid out of its body and into its wings. Without the struggle, the butterfly would never, ever fly. The boy’s good intentions hurt the butterfly.

As our children go through school, and life, and our loved one’s get themselves into deep trouble, keep in mind that struggling is an important part of any growth experience. In fact, it is the struggle that causes you to develop your ability to fly.

Our short term instincts run completely counter to the lesson of this story, don’t they?

We as people have a seemingly uncontrollable urge to save our kids from pain rather than teach them how to be resilient; if it’s within our reach, we will often accommodate every want and need our children express, even though we know this reaction won’t prepare them for the realities of adulthood.

It’s often the near misses and the “school of hard knocks” which force us to engage and hone our critical thinking skills, emotional intelligence, and overall resourcefulness … so why do we act out of impulse and always “save” the day?

To augment my point, check out a wonderful podcast from National Public Radio ( called “Does Teaching Kids to Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead?”(1) regarding the virtues of relaxing, even coping with the idea of allowing out kids and loved ones to struggle.

We challenge you to join us in taking this concept one step further: we can all agree that we’ve learned far more from our trials and tribulations than our successes; let’s allow our children tribulate far more often and help the next generation grow a little more resilient!

The world will be a better place if a few less people must have things their way and more of tomorrow’s leaders will know how to cope with adversity … intelligently.

1 Smith, Tovia, “Does Teaching Kids to Get ‘Gritty’ Help Them Get Ahead?”, March 17, 2014.

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