I Struggle, Therefore I Am
Sitting on the living room floor in a shaft of early-morning sunlight, I watch as my four-year-old son tries to put on his shoes. I can see right away where he is going wrong. He’s spreading his toes before slipping them into the shoe, causing a pinkie toe to continually be squeezed out to one side, caught when he tries to slide the shoe further. He does this at least three times while I sit and watch, determined to stay out of it. Eventually, he starts to get frustrated. He begins to cry. Now it is almost impossible for me not to intervene, but I refrain. He throws the shoe across the room and yells. And then he asks me for a hug, which I give him. After a few minutes of snuffling into my sweatshirt, he goes and collects the shoe, then sits on the rug and determinedly slides his foot into it. After three more attempts, he gets it on. The look of triumph on his face is brilliant. He asks me if I saw, and I tell him I did. He beams, and I can finally let out the breath I have been holding without even realizing it.
I’m convinced that watching our children struggle is one of the greatest parenting challenges in existence. Nothing tests my resolve like seeing my child in pain, whether from an injury, unkind words, or (like the shoes) an obstacle of his own making. It is enormously difficult to stand back in those moments and simply let them play out. Of course, I don’t mean that we should invite physical danger - if my son had been running with scissors instead of trying to do his shoes up, I would have certainly intervened. But in the moments when life and limb are not under threat, I try to take those opportunities to let him struggle, if I can.
At Alpine Valley School we have come to appreciate the lessons of struggle. Here, kids struggle with their own self-discipline, with interpersonal relationships, and sometimes with something as simple as getting a stubborn stain out of the carpet. Struggle is critically important in the lives of young people, and by solving everything for them, or swooping in with our own expertise, we rob children of the opportunity to cultivate their own mastery.
Trying, failing, trying again, failing again, trying yet again, and eventually succeeding teaches us how things must be done. It also teaches us that we are capable of doing them - not our parents, not our teachers, but us. Even more than learning to put on shoes or how to get along with friends, the notion that we are competent and can figure things out is one of the most important lessons there is. And students at self-directed democratic schools like Alpine Valley School get to struggle with that one every single day.