It's Good for Kids to Feel Uncomfortable Sometimes

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CC BY 2.0. Marco Verch

Discomfort builds grit, which every child needs to succeed in life.

I have two little kids at home who are eagerly awaiting their departure for sleepover camp this afternoon. It's the second year for my oldest child, but the first time for the younger one. He is nervous, jittery, emotional, and expressing doubt about his ability to last the week, despite the lengthy conversations we had earlier in the spring about whether or not he wanted to sign up for it.

My motherly instinct is to say, "Don't worry, I'll come pick you up if you're miserable." But I know I can't say this, because it's not true. Picking him up and removing him from a challenging situation would alleviate his homesickness immediately, but ultimately do him no favors (not to mention wasting a pile of money and creating a childcare problem for myself).

Audrey Monke, a mom of 5, long-time summer camp director, and blogger at Sunshine Parenting, explains why 'saving' our kids from uncomfortable situations never really works:

"It’s difficult for parents to know how to respond, and the natural instinct may be to jump in the car and rush up the mountain to save their camper. But, as I’ve learned over my three decades at camp, the 'saving' never turns out to be as helpful as it may seem. In fact, when struggling campers are saved rather than having to face the challenges of camp, they learn their parents don’t think they can handle discomfort, and in turn they lose a little faith in themselves; on top of being miserable, they now feel incompetent."

Children need to experience discomfort. It helps them to learn, to achieve confidence, and to grow. It's an effective way of growing 'grit' -- that sought-after quality that is a far greater determinant of lifelong success than brains, talent, compassion, kindness, and stable upbringings. Very basically, grit can be defined as "perseverance and passion for long-term goals". Teaching kids to fight their way through discomfort, whether at camp or elsewhere, is one way of building that quality.

Many kids head off to camp at this time of year, but even if yours does not, there are many other ways to introduce discomfort into their lives. Don't tell them how to dress; let them be too hot or cold and learn from it. Don't make them a snack as soon as they're hungry; tell them they can wait till the next meal. If someone says something hurtful, encourage them to handle it themselves.

You may have heard of lawnmower parents, the next-generation helicopter parents that focus on smoothing the path for their children. They mow down all obstacles to ensure s/he has a soft surface on which to proceed through life. These are the kinds of parents who swoop in at the slightest sign of homesickness at camp, who fear lasting damage to their offspring as a result of unpleasant emotions.

So, really, maybe it's the parents who need to become more comfortable with discomfort -- that of seeing their children experience discomfort. We need to encourage our kids to push beyond their comfort zones and "move beyond their circles of familiarity and constant care" (Monke) no matter how hard it is for us parents to witness.

That is why I'll be sending my younger kid off with a cheerful hug and push later today, knowing that no matter how hard the next few days might be for him, he stands to gain so much more than if he never went. He'll come home a little bit taller, just from knowing he did it.