College Professor: Parents, Let Your Teens ‘Do Hard Things’

“I just don’t want it to be hard for her, you know?”  

Recently an acquaintance shared her concerns about her daughter’s schedule for her freshman year of high school, which will require balancing challenging classes with a busy athletic schedule. She is a professional woman who navigated years of graduate school to build a successful career. So I was taken aback when she expressed her concern that her daughter could not handle the most demanding math teacher at her school and would not be able to balance sports and homework.

“I mean, I just don’t want it to be hard for my kids.”

This was not someone I knew well or seeking my professional advice. So I nodded sympathetically, and we wrapped up our business.  

But every alarm went off in my head, and all I could think of was my favorite quotation from The Princess Bride (a movie full of favorite quotations): “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

I’d like to tell my students that life is hard, but I don’t

During the year, as I meet with students from my classes, advisees, and others, I often have the impulse to quote the Dread Pirate Roberts. I don’t, though, because I suspect I would end up with an email from the administration asking me to please stop freaking out my students and their parents.

But as a long-time college history professor — with a daughter beginning the college application process — this is my wish: 

That every first-year college student would come to campus with this mantra running through their head: College is hard. Learning is hard. I will work hard, and I can’t wait to see what I learn!

And that with every phone call or text with their college student, parents would have this mantra running through their heads: You scream on the outside, I’ll scream on the inside.

In my own experience as a parent, when my children are overwhelmed by learning to do new and hard things, it takes all of my concentration to stay calm and encouraging instead of shouting, “Oh my gosh, you are right, that sounds impossible!”

mom and teen son
I try to be the place where my teen can ride out their emotional storms safely. . (Twenty20)

A parent’s job is not to smooth the path but to be a place of calm

It takes all of my willpower to say, “Yes, that’s a lot.  What’s the first step?” even as they glare at me, roll their eyes, or even burst into frustrated tears. But I’ve learned that my job as a parent is to try my hardest to provide a place of calm so they can find their way through the storm. (And then to scream into my pillow when the storm is safely past.)

I take a similar approach with my students, always trying to explain why we are doing something hard, help them break it into manageable steps, and have class conversations afterward about what was hard and what was good, interesting, exciting, or satisfying. When they are at their most anxious, at whatever stage of an assignment, I work hard to be the one who offers calm and steady guidance, clear expectations, and patient encouragement until they can collect themselves and push through the next challenge. 

Because doing the work to make a college education productive is hard.

Hard does not mean impossible. And I’m not talking about navigating the college system, accessing resources, or finding responsive faculty and administrators. Those things might require planning and organization, but they should not be hard.

The work of learning in college is hard

But the learning parts are meant to be hard. Otherwise, what is the point? Why would anyone invest all of this time, energy, emotion, and money to come to the other end of college without learning anything new about what they can navigate and accomplish?

In college and life, we don’t grow from easy things. A college education is meant to challenge us to think harder, think more, and think differently. It’s a time to try new things — not only living with a new roommate or trying new activities but exploring new ideas and challenges in the classroom.

Finding schools where our children are comfortable doing hard things — where they can get comfortable with being uncomfortable — is one of the most valuable gifts we can give them.

Hard can be frustrating, but part of the challenge is to figure out strategies for persisting through those frustrations.

Hard should not mean emotionally or physically damaging. But sometimes, it can mean tears. Or moments of exhaustion. Or screaming into a pillow. Or needing to go for a long walk to get away from everything. Or a regular ice cream date with a friend.

Doing hard things leads to a feeling of accomplishment

What I know from my academic journey and what I see in my students is that hard is an essential element to satisfactionaccomplishmentpride, and growth. These are keys to our children’s success in the adult world.

I recently sprained my ankle on an evening walk with dinner guests. As I sat on the curb, wondering if it was broken, I calmly asked my daughter to walk our guests to the ice cream shop while I waited for my husband to return home to get our car. Later my daughter said, “I couldn’t figure out if you were badly hurt.  Were you just screaming on the inside?”  

Yes, I was. So as not to freak out our dinner guests and their child. So as not to cause any unintentional damage to a new friendship or potential babysitting business for my daughter.

Sometimes — not always, but sometimes — there are good reasons to keep our screaming on the inside. Not in a “let’s repress our emotions” or “let’s pretend nothing’s wrong” sort of way. But in an “at this moment, I am thinking about you instead of me” way.  

Parents, keep your screaming on the inside

When our college-aged children are overwhelmed by the challenges of their new lives, sometimes the best way to help them is to keep our screaming on the inside while we talk or text with them. Let them be the ones to scream (whatever that looks like) and vent their stress so that they can get on with the work of learning new ideas and doing hard things.

As parents, we know how to do hard things. Lots of hard things that we never realized we could handle 18 or 20 or 30 years ago.

Now it’s their turn.

They don’t need us to fix the hard things for them. They just need to know that we know they can do it, and we’ll still be there when their screaming stops.

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About Karen Spierling

Karen E. Spierling is Professor of History and the John and Heath Faraci Endowed Professor at Denison University, a liberal arts college in Granville, OH.  She is also the mother of two teenage girls who are often—but not always—up for trying hard things. As a teacher and a mother, one of her favorite things is seeing young people move through the stages of “that sounds completely impossible” to “this is so hard, but I can see my way to the end” to “I can’t believe it did it — look at this awesome thing I did.”

Read more posts by Karen

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