Why Parents Have A Hard Time Allowing Kids To Struggle

The other day I was scrolling through posts on a virtual support group site for parents of students at one of our state universities.  A Mom was asking for advice, on behalf of her son, on how to get him out of a difficult class that he was already struggling with the first week of the semester. There were several comments from other parents, sharing that their kids had also struggled with similar intro-level language classes, and that the best thing to do was have her son drop the campus course, and instead take an easier online version through a local community college. Problem solved!

The exchange caused me to have a flashback to the intro-level language class I took in college many years ago. There I was walking into a tiny classroom, with all the desks facing each other in an oval and an instant uneasiness welled up inside of me. I hadn’t taken this language in high school and felt definitively behind the curve before the professor even walked in. When she did enter the room, she gave us a terse smile and declared, in her beautifully accented voice, “I’m going to speak English to you for about 90 seconds, and after that, you won’t hear me say another English word the entire quarter.”

“Oh, crap”, I silently groaned, as the uneasiness grew into a panicky, little pit in my stomach.

Did I struggle in that class?

Heck, yes.

Did I get an A in that class? Absolutely not.

It's hard for parents to let their teens struggle.
Antonio Guillem/ Shutterstock

Did I eventually, after 2 quarters of full immersion Spanish, get comfortable having basic conversations and even speak Spanish in my dreams? Si, Señora!

This all made me think of how much parenting has fundamentally changed for so many of us in one generation.

In the late 80’s, during one of our Sunday night check-in phone calls, I might have told my Mom that my language class was hard. If I had, that was the end of that topic. While I acknowledged to friends that the class was a killer, and my professora was harsh yet funny, I never for a second contemplated getting out of it, because we all had to endure these classes in order to graduate, and somehow, everybody we knew survived them.

Today, many students in this exact situation will text home that they are struggling or they are uncomfortable after a couple of days, and a parent quickly jumps into action, searching for ways to help them solve the problem, making it a joint dilemma.

Why do so many of us struggle to allow our kids to struggle?

First of all, technology has allowed us to become rather entangled in their lives. I remember being somewhat awed ten years ago when my son’s fourth grade teacher showed us her classroom website on Back to School Night. She was young and tech savvy and so proud of her creation. We now had the ability to see what concepts our kids would be learning every week, what their homework assignments were each night, and view pictures from class parties and field trips. How cool was that?

Those colorful and informative websites got us hooked, and they then led us all to middle school grade portals, where parents who chose to, could see every missing assignment their student failed to hand in,  which in turn became high school portals, with access to transcripts and Naviance, and comparisons of accepted college GPA’s.

Basically, we know a little too much about our kids.

And when we know too much, we tend to intervene too much. For better, and for worse, technology has become the new umbilical cord that we can never sever. It’s just so easy for us to reach out digitally and help find solutions for “problems” that our own parents never even knew existed. And in today’s instant gratification world, we’ve become just as impatient as our kids to find a fix.

Compounded with this is the hyper-competitive society we live in. The neighbor’s kid has already won a violin competition at age four. Your cousin’s 11-year-old son built a robot that is going to be in a documentary film, and your friend just mentioned that her daughter took the SAT test last month, as an eighth-grader.

Your kid cannot lose time struggling!

Parents can feel pressure to employ a full-time team of tutors, coaches, consultants and other professionals so that their kids don’t lose ground. What if they don’t make the team? Or get elected to student office? Or they get a C+, and then don’t get into their dream school?

Our collective fear has created this so-called “college arms race,” where there is no lane for the strugglers, and the frenetic racetrack has now led them into their anxious, young adult lives.

The irony is that what drives us to help and rescue is what has kept humans alive for centuries. And that is love. It is normal for any parent to not want to witness their offspring struggling.  It is our instinct to come to their aid and help them succeed.

And because so many of us did not experience a significant level of help from our own parents, there dwells within us a desire to “parent better,” and perhaps a curiosity for how much more successful our kids might be with added support and fine-tuning.  It’s like wanting to see an upgraded 2.0 version of ourselves.

If we did OK having to struggle, how exceptional might they be without having to endure all the same struggles?!

So, has our parental love become misguided?

It’s hard to label love that way, but when love is allowed to swirl around and marinate with fear and an overload of data for years, it’s easy for some of it to become a contaminated cocktail. It is a blend that is causing many in this generation of young adults to crumble when faced with adversity. They have had the bumps in the road leveled out for them too often, so their instinct is to jump at the chance to find the easier alternative – or let us find it for them.

But as the adults, we know far too well that sometimes in life, there is no easier alternative, no option to jump ship and go with Plan B. Even the well-coached and heavily prepped will be forced at some point to look around for the buoy and will only find the endless, choppy seas. All lanes will be closed except for the one with the struggles and heartache and pain.

Do we want them prepared for the struggle, to be able to remember that they’ve gotten through tough situations? To fully understand that their small struggles allow them to cope much better with bigger struggles?

As parents, it will be a challenge for us our entire lives to watch our children fight through a difficult situation, but we need to remember the difference between true suffering and struggling, especially during their formative years.

The Oxford dictionary has several definitions for the word struggle. One of them is the more colloquial: “strive to achieve or attain something in the face of difficulty or resistance.”

Yet it’s somewhat poetic that the primary definition is “make forceful or violent efforts to get free of restraint or constriction.”  This is the one I want to be mindful of when my own children are struggling with a difficulty. I do not want to be the constriction that narrows down the options and opportunities for them to solve a problem that they can cope with on their own.

Let’s try to push aside the fear and gift our kids the freedom to struggle on their own.


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About Marybeth Bock

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing - as long as iced coffee is involved. You can find her work on numerous websites and in two books. Find her on Facebook and Instagram

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