Allowing Kids the Benefit of the Struggle
- Michelle Groff Parenting by Design
- 2008 5 May
“Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime.” -- Author unknown
One summer my husband, Chris, and I took a trip to Colorado to try our hands at fly fishing for the first time. We had taken a preparation course in Fort Worth and I was pretty confident I would be able to execute my newfound skills with at least a modest measure of success. Chris had arranged for a fishing guide, James, to help us out. When the big day came, we eagerly jumped into his truck. I had all the gear in tow, including my polarized sunglasses that were supposed to help me to see the fish under the water.
When we reached the river, I waded in and attempted to wow James with my dexterity and skill at casting. Unfortunately, this was a virtual impossibility as I possessed none of either. I quickly became frustrated.
James had been guiding this river for many years. It was “catch and release” fishing and he was so familiar with the territory that he actually had names for the fish! I felt sorry for him that he had to endure my rudimentary efforts. Besides a lack of skill, my biggest problem was that I just plain couldn’t see the fish! Here was James, excitedly greeting his fish friends. “Hey look, there’s Sam!” “Hello there Julie!”, “What’ya up to Norton?” It really started to grate on my nerves. Where were these stinking fish? I squinted and strained with all my might, but all I saw was murky, greenish water. One thing I knew for sure, I wanted a refund on my polarized glasses!
James watched me with amusement. As he saw my frustration escalate, he realized he better intervene or I was apt to go “postal” on him. He came alongside me, took my arm, and proceeded to do an amazing job of casting towards the various fish he could see just below the surface. One trout, (I think it was “Norton”) took the fly and as James set the hook, he exclaimed with great excitement, “You caught a fish!”
I hated to burst James’s bubble, but I had caught nothing. James caught the fish and he managed to do it with the pole attached to the arm of a middle-aged housewife! Did he actually think I was duped into believing I had made any contribution whatsoever towards getting that fish on the line?
James wanted me to be so happy in my accomplishment, but actually, I was irritated with him. What I really wished James had done was to spend some time teaching me how to see the fish. What, exactly, should I be looking for? Where do they like to hang out? What subtleties differentiate fish from rocks?
It dawned on me that this story is an analogy for our role in parenting. How often we feel compelled to intervene and “do the fishing” for our kids! We see their struggles! We have the answers! We’ve fished these waters before! We know the fish by name and we know exactly how to navigate the murky water that seems so foreign to our children. We hate to see their frustration. We hate to see their failure. After all, we know how to catch the fish!
The problem is, as frustrated as they are, they don’t really want us to catch the fish for them. What they really want and need is for us to help them see the fish for themselves so they can catch them on their own!
So often, we misinterpret their frustration as a plea to intervene on their behalf. Our efforts to help them see the fish can become distorted and end up addressing our needs more than theirs. We might rescue them by taking their arm and doing the casting for them. Or, we might criticize their lack of discipline and tell them, at length, how we learned to be so adept in our fishing skills. We might get exasperated and choose to go sit in the truck secretly hoping they’ll recognize their need for us (along with our great wisdom) and beg us to come back into the river. Or we might resent the fact that we’re not going to be able to tell our friends back at the lodge just how successful we were in teaching our child to fish and what a talented fisherman he turned out to be!
What can we do to avoid these pitfalls and help them learn to see the fish? By sitting patiently in the river with them as they flail and grumble and learn. By restraining our urge to do it for them! By waiting for them to ask for our guidance instead of suffocating them with our “knowledge”. By choosing well-timed words of encouragement over lectures. By avoiding the trap of seeing their success or failures as a reflections on us. By valuing the lessons the learning process provides over the final result.
If we can quell the storm within us as parents, the payoff is precious indeed! Lo and behold, our child may start to catch a glimpse of those darn fish.
What are the various fish in their lives we are desperately trying to help them to see? Perhaps it is learning that to get up on time, you have to set your alarm. Maybe it’s realizing you have to start studying for a major exam before 11:00 the night before if you expect to get a good grade. When you fail a class, you end up having to repeat that grade. Or, if you want to buy a car, you need to figure out a way to earn the money. Those are the easy fish.
How about the lesson that if a friend offers you drugs, they’re not really much of a friend? That if you drink and drive, you are taking enormous risks with your life and the lives of others. That when you lie to someone, it affects their ability to trust you. That hard work and delayed gratification are tough on the front end, but pay big dividends later on. That respect is earned and true friends are treasured gifts. That you are responsible for your choices in life and those choices can greatly affect the quality of your life.
A funny thing happens as we teach our kids to see their fish-- we start to see the fish in our own lives that have been camouflaged in the murky waters! Sometimes we have spent a lifetime avoiding them. We don’t want to see them because seeing them requires painful self-examination and introspection. Seeing them demands an honest assessment of what we say we value in life versus what is really monopolizing our time, energy, and thoughts. Fish in the form of pride or a desire for control, comfort, or security. Our need to be right or validated by others. Or our willingness to worship the creation over the Creator.
The beautiful thing is that just as we are trying to help our kids see their fish, we have a heavenly parent who is working to help us see our own fish as well! He dutifully sits next to us in the river of life as we grumble and flail. He gives us freedom to make our own choices — even poor ones — and learn from the consequences. He whispers words of encouragement and love in our ears, but he doesn’t force us to do it his way. He promises never to go sit in the truck, or worse, drive away. He gives us room to learn tough lessons about ourselves and our misplaced affections. He rejoices with us each time we catch a flicker of that elusive fish and welcomes us into his celebratory embrace!
Parenting by Design (www.parentingbydesign.com) was created by Chris & Michelle Groff with Lee Long, MA, LPC to help parents understand the Biblical model for parenting their children. It is a faith-based parenting series that compares current parenting paradigms to the ageless parenting principles in the Bible.